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Trial of Man

Chapter Text

 

Drums beat in the Akatsuki town square, smoke rising the combination of burning incense and firecrackers. In the heart of Akatsuki—a perfecture-level city in the country of Amegakure, civilians gathered to watch a display of taijutsu led by different taijutsu masters—all with their own style of fighting. In the center of it all, a lion dance was happening; the lion hopping and shaking its shaggy head as it entertained the people.

"HA!" A man grinned as he thrust his palm forward, his disciples following the movement behind him. His legs were wide in a stance that was unfamiliar to civilians and rival masters. "HA!"

His pupils repeated the kiai with great bluster, "HA!"

But the rival schools were not to be outdone. The three other masters present all seemed to get the same idea at once, and began to up their game by performing more complicated katas that were exclusive to their schools.

"Ah, look at all of them," a woman in a nearby dango shop said, pointing the sharp end of her dango stick at the performance. Her nose was scrunched up at the stench of the lingering smoke, and she lifted one hand to brush her blonde hair away from her face, snorting in trivial annoyance when it fell over her left eye once more. "They don't know what true art is, un."

"Maa, maa," the brown-haired shopkeeper smiled, her eyebrows slanting upward in fond exasperation. "I'm sure that you could teach them a lesson or two, Deidara-chan, but please refrain from blowing them all up." She paused before smiling. "And if you can't, at least try to spare my husband."

"What, Obito-san?" Deidara finished the last of her dango and tossed the stick to a nearby bin. It bounced against the wall before clattering into the can. "Are you sure, Rin? Because your husband is an idiot, un."

Uchiha Rin couldn't help but sweatdrop at Deidara's deadpan. "Deidara-chan..." Before she could further chastise her friend and regular customer, a little boy came running into the store from the back door, a dirty red ball in his hands.

"Has the performance started yet?!" he demanded, eyes wide.

"If it isn't brat number one," Deidara remarked, and the brown-haired child whipped his head toward her. He grinned widely—it was the same smile that was normally seen on Uchiha Obito's face when he was helping an elderly woman cross the street.

"Deidara-nee!" he exclaimed, running forward to hug her around the waist.

The blonde woman grunted, placing one hand on the boy's head and pushing him away. "Okay, okay, enough of that. Don't you want to see your dad fall on his face?"

"Deidara, please," Rin said sternly, scooping up her son in her arms. "Save the corrupting for someone else's children."

"Will otou-san really fall on his face...?" the boy asked hesitantly, his eyes growing watery.

"Of course not, Daichi." Rin's voice was firm, but soothing. She used her slender fingers to comb knots and thistles out of his hair, souvenirs from playing outside since early morning. "Your father is an amazing taijutsu master."

"I wouldn't be so sure," Deidara muttered when embers fell upon the sleeve of Obito's gi.

"Otou-san's on fire!" Daichi suddenly cried.

"Yes, he is, isn't he?" Rin said absently, placing Daichi back on the ground to wave at another customer that had just come in. He was a regular, and simply helped himself to a table and flipped open the newspaper he'd been carrying. He had glasses perched on his nose.

"No, he's actually on fire!" Deidara and Daichi said in unison, watching Obito fall out of his disciplined movement as he tried and failed to extinguish the flame that had ignited on the sleeve of his gi. His students cried out in alarm and one tried to use a fan to put out the fire. They all squawked when it simply made the fire grow bigger.

"WHAT?!" Rin gripped skirt lifted it up to ease her running toward him. "Obito, you idiot!"

"Rin, get back!"

"SENSEI, BE CAREFUL!"

Too late. Obito had walked backward into the lion dance performers with the promise of more chaos.

Deidara found herself unable to watch the scene anymore, though she had a very large grin on her face. How a retard like Obito ever became a master in the Uchiha Style escapes me, she mused to herself. She turned to Daichi, who looked a cross between bemused and very concerned. "Ne, Daichi-kun, why don't we sneak out the back and make a few things blow up? Like that old lady's cat?"

Daichi, who absolutely despised Tora the cat, brightened up. "I'm in! You're so cool, Deidara-nee!"

"Ohoho! You know it, un!" She winked at him. "Which is why I'm everyone's favorite senpai, un."

The unlikely duo left the dango shop and made their way to a courtyard, where multiple children were running about. There were a few old men and women loitering about as well, and Deidara could see the Nara patriarch and his heir playing shogi under the shade of a tree. It was quite a funny sight to behold—Nara Shikamaru was a few years younger than Deidara herself, and looked terribly out of place surrounded by people more than twice his age.

"He's going to beat you in three moves," an old woman was relentlessly stage-whispering into Shikamaru's ear, sending his father, Shikaku, sneaky glances.

"Obaa-san, please!" Shikamaru said through gritted teeth, his eyebrow twitch. "Man, this is such a drag..."

Deidara pitied the boy but focused her attention on Daichi, who was headed for a group of boys standing in a circle and talking.

"Deidara-nee's gonna play with us!" Daichi told them, and the little boys all straightened, eyes bright.

"Really?!"

"Wow!"

"Is she gonna blow something up?!"

"Please blow something up!"

Deidara sighed dramatically. "Oh, I don't know, boys..." She relished in their disappointed looks (hey, it meant that they cared about her art!) before rectifying, "I'm just messing with you, un. Now..." The young woman held up her hands, tongues sticking out of the mouths of her palms. "C1 or C2?"

"C2! C2!"

As Deidara played the trickster with her explosions—none of them strong enough to truly harm anyone—the boys ooh'ed and ahh'ed at appropriate times, pleasing the explosions specialist greatly. She could be quite flexible with her art, able to mold her explosive clay into all sorts of creatures that impressed her young audience, but she had yet to produce an explosion strong enough to take down a highly trained martial artist. She mostly relied on her explosions as deadly distractions, going in for the kill with close range combat on her opponents.

Not that she had killed before—no one that wasn't a criminal had in the peaceful city of Akatsuki. There simply wasn't reason to. But her sparring partners always claimed that they felt like they had been run over by a horse and cart when she was finished with them.

"Hmph!" a girl with pale blonde hair that was standing aside sniffed, putting her nose up at the mini-explosions display. She had a doll clutched in the crook of her elbow, one that she held close to her. "That senpai is such a boy! Okaa-san says that she's never gonna get married!"

That got her a slap on the wrist from her big sister, Yamanaka Ino. "Hitomi," the blonde girl scolded. Ino wore her hair in a similar fashion to Deidara—they both had 'canary wing' bangs covering an eye. But Ino's pale blonde fringe was flatter against her face, while Deidara's had a bit more volume and brighter color. They also had their hair tied up in ponytails, though Ino's was a full one while Deidara had the lower half of her hair down to her shoulders. "Deidara-san is a respected taijutsu master. She's proving that girls don't need to get married to be sustained."

"She needs to take care of her looks better," Hitomi said gruffly.

Ino tilted her head. "Well, that I can agree with." Though her fringe is to die for...

"Ahh, ahh!" a boy shrieked when one of Deidara's clay spiders got too close for comfort. Squeezing his eyes shut, he smacked the clay creation away, sending it flying toward Hitomi.

"Look out!" Daichi cried, unwilling to see the pretty Hitomi harmed. No! Hitomi-chan! He ran for the girl he admired, his shoes slapping against the cobblestone.

Hitomi screamed in terror, dropping her doll, while Ino tensed, pulling her sister close to her.

Suddenly, the spider stopped in midair. Hitomi blinked, as did Ino and Daichi. Attached to the spider was a blue string—a chakra string.

Ino gaped. No way! A kekkei genkai? She looked around for the user. But who...?

Her train of thought was broken when more chakra strings grabbed on to the clay spider, pulling it apart. Deidara watched dispassionately as it fell to the ground in pieces, harmless.

"You should be more careful with those," a bland voice sounded, and Ino twisted her neck so she could see the speaker: he was standing on the stairs above the sisters.

"They won't explode until I will them to," Deidara argued, crossing her arms and defiantly staring down the red-haired man that gazed at them from the top of the stairs. He had brown eyes that were impassive, but Deidara had the feeling that those chocolate orbs were just as capable of producing warmth. "There was no danger."

He raised an eyebrow. "And you expect me to know that? How could I..." He jumped off from the staircase, landing in front of the Yamanaka sisters and striding toward Deidara until they stood a meter apart. "When you're merely a brat."

"... Excuse me? Brat?" Deidara lifted her chin, her lips twisting into a scowl. "You look like you're barely older than me, kid. You have no business calling me a brat and insulting the control I have over my art, un."

"Art?" The man scoffed, making Deidara bristle. "Don't be ludicrous. Those... tricks of yours are not art."

An irk mark appeared on Deidara's forehead, and her visible eye twitched in outrage. "Oh? And who are you to know about fine art?" This... bastard!

"What? You call those explosions fine art? Fine art is something wonderful that's left long into the future... eternal beauty, if you may. What's the point of something that disappears as soon as it's born?" As if to make a point, the man scuffed his boot against the remnants of Deidara's clay spider.

"You're mad!" Deidara blurted, taking a step toward him. "And your interpretation of art is nothing short of idiotic, un! Art is something that blossoms for an instant before withering away. Art is beauty that lasts for just a single moment. To me, the essence of art... is an explosion!"

"Ridiculous. Art—"

"Is a bang, un!"

"—is something lasts for all posterity."

Electricity zapped between their gazes (they were the same height, which made it all the better). Then Deidara lifted a closed fist.

"Whatever your art is, mine is superior."

His eyebrows lifted. "Care you put your money where your mouth is, brat?"

Deidara launched a punch, one that Sasori blocked. He retaliated, striking for her neck and nearly hitting the mark, only for her to grab his arm and fling him in an arc over her head. But he held on to her, throwing her to the ground and knocking the wind out of her. Ino gasped in awe when Deidara used her legs and grab around his waist and twist, allowing her to stand while he toppled to the ground. But the red-haired puppeteer wasn't down for long, and before long, the two were exchanging blows again, though Deidara's male counterpart seemed to be getting the upperhand.

She noticed it, too, as she kicked him in the chest and threw multiple bombs at him, five of which he caught with his chakra threads, using them to knock the others out of the air. The clay exploded around him, covering his vision with white smoke, and Deidara used the opportunity to dash at him, the smoke whipping around her.

"Everyone, everyone!" Daichi was calling, waving at the intrigued civilians. "There's taijutsu happening!"

"A taijutsu battle?" An old lady raised her eyebrow, smacking her lips. "Haven't seen one of those in a while. And those loud displays in town square don't count."

"True, very true," said a balding man, turning to the Naras. "Shikaku, weren't you once an expert taijustsu user as well? How does it look from here?"

"Well..." Shikaku observed their battle with sharp eyes, Shikamaru leaning forward a bit to get a better look. "From what I can see, it's clear that Sasori is more experienced when it comes to close combat. He's also a puppeteer, but he seems to be without his puppets today, so Deidara might be able to utilize that."

Sasori popped a pair of puppets out of a storage scroll he was hiding underneath his cloak—the black cloak and red clouds that were affiliated with Akatsuki and Amegakure itself—and sent them to attack Deidara.

Shikaku was forced to reevaluate. "Or perhaps not."

"Sasori?" Shikamaru echoed. "So that's his name..."

"Yes. He's a very skilled taijutsu user, though he isn't very well known outside of Akatsuki. He prefers to keep a low profile, unlike most."

"Deidara," Sasori said suddenly. "That's your name, is it not?"

"It is," Deidara affirmed, narrowing her eyes. "And you're Sasori, un?"

"Correct. Try to keep up, won't you, Deidara-san? We've got a show to put on. Don't disappoint our audience."

"Oh, it's not me you have to worry about—" She swept her leg underneath his legs, but he landed on his hands and flipped back onto his feet. His puppets momentarily wavered in the air as the chakra thread connection was interrupted. "—it's—"

"What is going on here?"

The crowd stopped cheering and clapping as an icy voice cut through the air. Then the civilians parted, allowing a dark-haired boy to pass, a team of police officers following behind him.

"Uchiha Sasuke!" Ino whispered loudly. "The Chief of Police's son..."

Deidara paused mid-dash, her body relaxing into a non-threatening pose as Sasuke neared, Sasori doing the same before turning his body toward the Uchiha boy.

"I heard he activated his sharingan recently," a woman whispered to her husband. "Now they have him leading teams to test his worth, apparently."

"He's pretty cute," Hitomi mumbled, much to Daichi's display. But the boy was quickly shaken out of his crestfallen state when Sasuke directly addressed him.

"Daichi. Get back to your mother."

"Y-yes, sir..."

But Deidara stopped him by pulling him closer to her. "Is there a problem, Uchiha-san?"

Sasuke let his gaze linger on her protective form before staring down both her and Sasori. "The problem is that you're creating disturbance in a public area."

"Disturbance?" Sasori said coolly. "I think you'll find that what we were doing was more akin to an instrumental player's street performance than a... disturbance."

"The civilians were clearly enjoying it, and no one was in danger, un," Deidara added.

"Regardless." Sasuke's tone was clipped. "I must insist you leave."

"Yo, Sasuke! My favorite cousin!"

Sasuke's eye twitched comically as Obito's boisterous voice filled the air, and the boy inwardly groaned.

Deidara snickered at Sasuke's expense earning an amused look from Sasori.

"Otou-san!" Daichi immediately ran up to Obito when the man emerged from the crowd, Rin close behind him. Both parents had soot on their faces.

"Hey, kiddo!" Obito crouched and ruffled his hair. "Giving Sasuke trouble? I'm proud."

And just like that, the tension defused. The civilians dispersed, falling back into friendly chatter, like the whole confrontation had never happened.

"Obito," Sasuke deadpanned.

"Hm?"

"I had it under control."

Sensing Sasuke's ire, Sasori quickly interfered, "Uchiha-san. Nothing dangerous went down here today, I assure you." His lips quirked upward slightly, making Deidara stare. Who knew that the guy could smile? "I must say, you're doing a remarkable job at policing. But try not to let it get in the way of everyday life. No rule deserves to be followed to a tee."

"Well," Sasuke said uncertainly, thrown off by Sasori's diolomacy. "I suppose. But please save your battles for somewhere less crowded."

"Duly noted. Deidara-san?"

Deidara turned her head slightly toward him. "Yes, Sasori-san?" Was he going to ask for a rematch?

"You are a brat with no taste in art," Sasori stated, striding off with his cloak billowing behind him.

"You—"

"But I think a rematch is in order," Sasori interrupted before Deidara could finish, his eyes just a tad warmer than they had been when he had 'saved' the Yamanaka sisters. His cheeks were flushed from the heat of battle, as were Deidara's. "Someday. I'll be waiting, brat."

When he was gone, Obito let out a low whistle. "Man, is it just me or is it getting hot in here?"

Rin smacked his arm and Sasuke pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration.

"Really, cousin," the younger Uchiha muttered before spinning on his heel. "Come," he said to his officers. "We have elsewhere to be."

"Come over for dinner tonight!" Obito called after him, waving. "Rin's making tomato and prawns!"

"You're welcome, too, Deidara-chan," Rin told the blonde woman.

"I feel like something might explode if I have to sit with him at a table, un," Deidara warned, wiping dust off her hands on her dark green gi.

Obito merely shrugged. "What's dinner without a few flames and chaos?"

"Speaking of flames," Rin began.

Obito blushed. "There was a pothole, okay?"

Daichi glanced between his parents, then at Deidara, who shrugged.

"I'm unmarried," she told the child. "Don't go looking to me for answers, un."


"Baa-sama. I'm back." Sasori hung his cloak on a coat hanger as he walked to the kitchen, where Chiyo was making dinner. Wordlessly, he picked up a knife and started cutting up vegetables with enviable efficiency.

"You look ecstatic," Chiyo commented as she boiled a pot of water. She threw him a sideways glance. "As ecstatic as my grandson gets, anyway. Get into a good fight?"

"Mm." Sasori looked out the window above the sink, watching young children play outside under the grey skies of Akatsuki. "She had little appreciation for fine art, but she was a worthy opponent."

"Was she like the rest?" The rest being mainstream martial artists that promoted their schools and styles.

Sasori shook his head. "No, but she has made quite a name for herself. She's Deidara. The explosions specialist."

"The one with the... odd kekkei genkai?"

He remembered the mouths on her palms. "Yes, her."

"Ah."

They fell into a comfortable silence before something sly entered Chiyo's wizened gaze. "You know, I hear she has a fourth mouth."

Sasori hardly twitched. "Oh?"

"Yes. And you'd never guess where of all places."

"And I suppose this is the part where I ask where?" Sasori placed his knife down and dumped the vegetables in a bowl before running it under the tap.

"Oh, hush, you. Apparently, it's on her chest."

Sasori paused before turning off the tap. "And?"

"Aren't you curious?" Chiyo pressed. "Curious enough to investigate, perhaps?"

Sasori gave her a sharp glance. "Baa-sama, what are you insinuating? Don't be so quick to assume such things about me..."

The old witch cackled. "Oh, come off it, you." Then her face grew comically serious. "You're nearly thirty, you know. It's time to go wife-hunting."

"Baa-sama, please; can we not have this discussion? I don't have time for a spouse. My art requires full dedication." He paused, then added, "Plus, women always want useless things."

Sasori didn't flinch when Chiyo's butcher knife embedded itself into the wall beside his head.

Chiyo clicked her tongue, disappointed. "Not even a twitch? I must be losing my touch."

Sasori gave a long-suffering sigh. "Baa-sama, you've boiled your water to the point where the pot is half empty."

But Chiyo was untroubled. "So it is. You know what it represents? Your longevity without a wife by your side."

Sasori remained unimpressed. "She's barely twenty."

"And your grandfather was twice my age when I married him," Chiyo shot back.

"Regardless, I'm not interested."

Chiyo shook her head. "Ah, you... You're going to die a lonely virgin."

"Baa-sama."

"Hm?"

A blade stuck out from the wall close to Chiyo.

"I can take a hint," Chiyo said grumpily. "Now start cutting that meat—dinner isn't going to make itself."

So, to Sasori's relief, the subject was dropped for the meantime.

Chapter Text

"Where's the other little one, un?" Deidara inquired as she accompanied the Nohara-Uchiha family back to their dango shop, which was just one of the many establishments they owned. The family business mostly ran in the production and distribution of cotton products. When Rin wasn't at the dango shop, she was running the cotton mill with her husband.

"Asleep upstairs," Rin explained, referring to the room they had above the shop. They were wealthy enough to afford more than one estate. "Ever since Daichi turned eight last month, Hikari's been so impatient about her birthday."

"She's turning five in November, right?"

Rin nodded, her eyes growing wistful as she watched her husband and son—both of whom had overtaken the two women. Obito had picked up Daichi and was swinging him around, the boy babbling gleefully as he felt the breeze rush against his face.

"... Does it hurt, un?"

Rin snapped out of her stupor. "Come again?"

Deidara's cheeks went slightly pink. "Like... the process, un. Does it hurt when it... comes out?"

"Oh! Oh, yes it does. Very much so." Rin saw no point in lying to the younger girl. If Deidara wanted to have children in the future, she had to know what to expect. Or, st the very least, what not to expect, like a painless childbirth. "It feels like your insides are being torn apart, sewn back together, and then ripped apart all over again." She said all this with a smile that made Deidara scoot a few inches to the left.

"That bad?"

"Oh, no, I'm one of the lucky ones. I have childbearing hips." She gestured at her waist. "That made things a whole lot easier for me."

"Right, un. More reason not to have any brats for me."

Rin giggled at the repulsed look on Deidara's face, an expression that was combined with a hint of fear.

"Hey!" Obito rejoined them, carrying Daichi on his shoulders. "What have you lovely ladies been talking about?"

"Childbirth," Rin said chipperly.

"Undescribable pain that no woman should have to go through," Deidara intoned at the same time.

Immediately, Obito balked. "Y'know, even walking into a conversation about your monthly bleeds would have been better!"

"Oh, come off it, you," Rin admonished. "It's not as bad as you men like to think. It's like pushing a small watermelon out."

"Imagine a lemon coming out of your penis, un," Deidara added unhelpfully with a small grimace.

Obito lurched into himself as if he had been punched. "Urk!"

Rin rolled her eyes, placing one hand on her husband's shoulder and the other on Deidara's shoulder. "Honestly. You martial artists like to think you're all tough and able to handle the pain, but you can't even handle a single conversation about the miracle of childbirth."

"Deidara-nee looks pale," Daichi piped. "So does otou-san."

"Kid," Deidara managed to bite out. "Don't ever mess with your mother, because she will end you, un."

As they exited the courtyard, a boy with blond hair ran past them and squawked as the string connecting his fox kite to his hand snapped. Uzumaki Naruto stared haplessly after his fox kite.

He refused to lose it to the wind.

"Come back here!" Naruto cried, running after his kite. It drifted past the wall, and Naruto struggled to climb over it, tumbling over to the other side and wincing. But his bruises and scratches could wait—that kite had cost him most of the meager pay he got working at the Nohara-Uchiha cotton mill. Most orphans didn't have any toys—Naruto, at fifteen—had one, which was a white kite with the face of a fox painted on its surface.

The kite floated along the wind, moving in and up-and-down and side-to-side manner, until it finally landed in a tree within the walls of a mansion. Naruto skidded to a halt outside the stone wall, looking up in awe at the house, noticing the fan crest hung across the balcony.

An Uchiha house! Naruto thought wondrously. But it's way outside the compound, and there are no sentries around.

In Akatsuki, the Uchiha family ran the police force, which was composed of both Uchihas and non-Uchihas. The Uchihas themselves all lived in a part of the district; their living quarters weren't too far off the police station.

Curious, Naruto scaled the fencing, his pants nearly snagging in some crevices in the stone. Quiet as a mouse, he tip-toed to the tree, using a wall to help him get closer to where the kite hung. Dammit! It's too high! I'm gonna have to climb it.

Meanwhile, a family of two—soon to be three in a few months, if the woman's slightly rounded belly was any indication—ate dinner inside the house, servants bustling about in different quarters of the place.

"Itachi-sama," one of the servants said with a hasty bow. "The one called Hoshigaki-sama seeks your audience. He is waiting outside."

"Hoshigaki-sama?" Itachi mused, garnering a curious glance from Izumi, his doe-eyed wife. He excused himself from the table, striding to the open front doors, where a large, blue man with gills was waiting.

He'd heard of Hoshigaki Kisame of the near extinct Hoshigaki clan. He was supposed to have a very dangerous kekkei genkai—the ability to eat up chakra—though nobody knew how it worked, for he kept his secret under very tight wraps.

Itachi cocked an eyebrow. "You are..."

Kisame grinned, the action being incredibly shark-like, and revealing a large row of sharp teeth."I am the master of the Demon Shark, Hoshigaki Kisame. I just started up a martial arts club in Akatsuki..."

"Congratulations."

"And I've heard that you, Uchiha-sama, are an expert in Amaterasu. I'd come here today with the request of a... friendly spar." Kisame's smile grew wider, but Itachi was unfazed, simply returning the smile, albeit more politely and less... bite-y.

"Now would not be a good time," Itachi declined, closing his eyes. "Perhaps another day."

But Kisame wouldn't hear of it. "But I'm already here, aren't I? No harm in playing around for a bit. I won't take up too much of your time." The shark-man's eyes gleamed. "It'll be private. No one else shall know who wins or loses aside from ourselves."

Confident, isn't he? Itachi inwardly smirked. "It's not a matter of winning or losing, Hoshigaki-sama. You see..." Itachi turned his body, staring mournfully at the dinner table, where Izumi was waiting. "I'm having dinner." He gave Kisame a thumbs-up, his eyes twinkling. "We're having stew tonight."

"Geh..." Kisame sweatdropped, not particularly caring what the Uchiha was having for dinner. "In the case... I'll wait for you."

"If you have the patience, then by all means, come in."

So Kisame stepped inside and waiting by the lounge, opposite the Uchiha's humble dinner table. The shark-man watched them eat with beady eyes, his gaze lingering on the piece of fish between Izumi's chopsticks before she popped it in her mouth, chewing. Outside, Naruto was still trying to get his kite, using a stick to try and poke it out of the tree. He had found that the tree was not suitable for climbing the hard way; it had too few branches and Naruto had too many bruises to dare dry again.

"Hoshigaki-sama," Itachi's voice cut through the comfortable silence as he addressed the elephant in the room. "Have you eaten dinner yet?" When Kisame shook his head, Itachi invited, "Please join me—we can eat together, then."

Five minutes later, Kisame was earnestly devouring the rice the servants had whipped together.

"Uchiha-san," he said after swallowing, addressing Izumi. "Your cooking is wonderful."

"Ah, it's not my cooking." Izumi chuckled. "While I like to think I'm quite capable in the kitchen, I find that it benefits everyone when the servants cook instead."

Kisame's eyes fell to her pregnant belly. "Right, of course. Apologies for assuming."

"Oh, no, you're all good, Hoshigaki-sama. Anata, correct me if I'm wrong, but Hoshigaki-sama is here for a spar, isn't he?"

Itachi glanced up from his rice bowl, and Kisame could have sworn that his eyes flashed red for a second there. "He is," he confirmed. "After we finish eating, we'll have having a friendly spar."

"Yes... friendly," Kisame felt the need to emphasize.

Dinner was mostly a quiet affair, and Kisame and Itachi had moved to the lounge to have tea while the servants cleaned up after them. As Kisame drank from his cup, Itachi watched him from behind his bangs.

This man is undoubtedly a schemer. He insisted that I accept his challenge under the pretense of a 'friendly spar' so that he can make a name for himself and his new school by beating me. Itachi took a sip of tea. Shame he's not well-versed in the art of subtlety. If he were, I might find myself having more respect for the man. "I'm glad you enjoyed the food."

"Hm? Oh, yes, it was excellent." Kisame's eyes were glazed over, indicating that he was extremely bored of these mundane affairs.

"That's good." Itachi met his wife's gaze from across the room. Izumi had a knowing glint in her eyes, and she mouthed "good luck" and "be quick" before exiting the dining hall. As his wife retreated, Itachi turned to the remaining servant who was cleaning up the rest of the plates. "Oji-san, leave it. I'll take care of it later. And close the front doors as well."

The servant—an old man—nodded once before complying with Itachi's orders and making a hasty exit. The movement of the man caught the attention of Naruto, who was by the window in a new attempt to get his kite back.

Ehh? What are those two guys up to? Naruto wondered, blinking his large eyes.

"Hoshigaki-sama." Itachi stood before removing his Akatsuki cloak and placing it on the chair he had been sitting on. "Shall we?"

Kisame took one last sip of his tea before straightening, his eyes gleaming at the prospect of a challenge. "Yes, let's."

They moved further away from the dining table, Naruto's eyes following their movement. There were twigs and leaves stuck in his hair, and Naruto hoped that helped camouflage him.

Kisame clutched one hand over his fist. "Please!"

Itachi did the same, albeit with less flair. "Please."

Then they got into their respective stances, Naruto's eyes growing wide.

Taijutsu users! He squirmed in his hiding spot, his kite forgotten for now. This is gonna be so cool!

Kisame moved first, attacking Itachi with his arms in a series of powerful punches, his feet moving along with the rest of his body. Itachi, with even more grace than Kisame, allowed himself to be pushed back, deflecting Kisame's blows with ease. Then, somehow, Itachi managed to get Kisame's back to face him, and struck at his spine, sending the shark-man spinning backward.

Naruto gaped as Kisame sent a kick at Itachi, only for it to be grabbed; he had to resist from crying out in awe when Itachi all but smacked Kisame's large frame away with only his palms, which looked delicate to Naruto.

"Hehe..." Kisame cracked his neck. "You're good, Uchiha-sama."

"Where is your Samehada?" Itachi had heard that Kisame's sword had something to do with his chakra-eating powers.

"At home. Figured I didn't need it to defeat you."

"Aa. Have you caught your breath?"

Kisame narrowed his eyes. "Save your concern for someone else."

They moved out of Naruto's perspective and the boy pouted, only to be excited again when he saw Kisame flying back into view and slamming into the front doors of the Uchiha mansion. Itachi was soon upon him, striking in all sorts of places that Kisame couldn't entirely defend. With the strike of a palm, Itachi sent Kisame into the front doors again, only for the shark-man to be struck on the side by a wooden table.

Itachi raised an eyebrow. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, I'm fine!" Kisame said gruffly. "Again!"

"Aa. Here I come, then."

It was a thorough defeat if Naruto ever saw one. Not five minutes later, Kisame was lying on his stomach, with Itachi air-punching him in the head and neck, showing Naruto what kind of damage he could have dealt had it not been a friendly match.

Itachi didn't need to see Kisame's face to know that his pride had been greatly wounded. "Hoshigaki-sama, thank you for being lenient with me." With that, Itachi helped him up to his feet by picking him up by the armpits.

"... Thank for sparring with me today, Uchiha-sama."

Suddenly, the front door opened from the outside, and both men tensed, Itachi relaxing when he saw who it was.

"Itachi," Sasori greeted, carrying a box of something by his side with his chakra threads. His brown gaze flitted to Kisame, immediately losing what little warmth it had. "You were at today's taijutsu display. Hoshigaki-sama, I take it?"

"I am," Kisame confirmed. "And you...?"

"Sasori."

The shark-man's gaze widened ever so slightly. "Akasuna no Sasori?"

"No. Just Sasori."

"I see..."

Itachi smiled. "What brings you here, Sasori?"

The puppeteer retracted his chakra threads, allowing the box he was carrying to sit on his hands. "A gift from my grandmother. She says that you should come over more often." His gaze flattened slightly. "The woman adores you for reasons that I will never know."

"Tell her I said thank you." Itachi took the box, sniffing at it. "Chicken rice?"

"It'll still be fresh tomorrow."

Kisame let out a low whistle. "Chicken rice, huh? My own gran used to make that. Before, well, you probably already know the story."

"Indeed," Sasori intoned. "Also, Itachi, tell your brother to take his head out of his ass. Being stuck-up won't do him any favors in the eyes of the public, Police Chief's son be damned."

Itachi smirked. "I'll make sure to pass on the message. Hoshigaki-sama, allow me to escort you out..."

Kisame was walked by Itachi to the front gates, Sasori following close behind before diverting to the side, having noticed some movement in the trees.

Sasori narrowed his eyes, his fingers tingling as his chakra threads began to form. His feet padded against the ground silently, and he paused when he saw a blond boy trying to jostle his kite out of a tree with a long stick. Unfortunately, the stick was just a little too short to reach the toy.

"What are you doing here," Sasori deadpanned.

"Gaah! Geez, don't sneak up on me like that, dattebayo!" Naruto glared at the puppet master.

"You're on private property."

"So are you."

"Yes, but I'm not trespassing." Sasori glanced up at the kite. "Yours?"

"Well, yeah. Oh, hey! Did you see the two guys fighting?! It was so awesome. It was all boom, and pow, and smack! The big shark dude never stood a chance, dattebayo!

Sasori cringed away from the boy. Had this imp no concept of 'inside voice'? "No, I didn't see." Before the boy could continue, Sasori used his chakra threads to grab the kite out of the tree, passing it to Naruto. "Here. Don't lose it again. Not everyone is as kind as me."

"Kind?" Naruto scrunched up his nose. "You seem like kind of a jerk... but you're cool as well!"

"Eh?" I'm a jerk but I'm also cool?

"Uh huh! Like that Kakashi guy!"

"Kakashi?" Where have I heard that name before?

But Naruto wasn't up for talking more. He ran toward the wall and scaled it with relatively more ease than he had before, now exuberant that he had his kite back. He sat on top of the wall to wave at Sasori. "Thanks for helping me, senpai!"

He disappeared to the other side of the wall, leaving Sasori to stare at where he had been before taking his own leave.


Dawn had just arrived when Deidara awoke from her slumber, groggily sitting up in her bed and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. She lived nearby the Uchiha district, where the police station was. Her home wasn't big, and the majority of her wealth came from the trust fund of her deceased parents.

The long-haired woman was making herself tea when a very loud voice from the place next door declared, "Yosh! Another day has arrived, and the flower blooms youthfully yet another time!"

Deidara groaned to herself, knowing what was about to come next. Might as well be prepared, un. She wasn't planning on doing any fighting today, as she would be hitting the market, so she dressed in a plain blue yukata. She had just finished tying up her hair in its usual style when someone knocked on her door.

"Deidara! Are you up? Today, we shall do five-hundred laps around the Uchiha district!"

"No thank you," Deidara said as she opened the door, her face not even twitching when Maito Gai grinned back at her. "I have plans today, un. And while I can appreciate your dedication to fitness and general well-being, I'm not a complete nutcase like you, un."

Gai turned his head to the side, sticking his nose in the air. "Well, I suppose that's fair. Women aren't usually able to handle my training regimen..."

"Cut the misogyny, un. That stopped working a long time ago." Deidara shoved past him, tucking a storage scroll that had her purse and her clay creations contained into the sleeve of her yukata.

Gai was irked. "As usual, your cool and hip attitude—which is reminiscent of my Eternal Rival's—is my downfall! As punishment for not being able to convince you, I shall do five-hundred laps around the entire city. And if I cannot do those five-hundred laps—"

"You'll leave me alone?" Deidara suggested dryly.

Unfortunately, Gai stuck by her side, insisting on accompanying her to the market.

"It is only right for me to a escort a fair lady like yourself!" Gai proclaimed, and Deidara struggled not to roll her eyes for the umpteenth time.

"Thank you, Gai." Deidara didn't sound very thankful at all, but Gai was not deterred.

"You are most welcome! And if I should fail in my quest to protect you, then I will—"

Deidara never got to hear what he would do (though she had a good guess of what kind of ridiculous challenge he would assign to himself next) as they had reached the market place. It was bustling as usual, with shop vendors opening up for the day and inviting customers inside to try their food or buy their clothing. The marketplace was built around the Nohara-Uchiha cotton mill. In the Nohara-Uchiha building, there was space for other vendors as well, including a man that sold kites and another that sold goldfish. Both were popular with the children, and the Nohara-Uchiha couple got part of the earnings as per their agreement with the shop vendors.

"Kakashi! My Eternal Rival!" Gai cried when he saw Kakashi behind the counter of the kite shop, reading an orange book.

The silver-haired man sighed through his mask, closing his book (but making sure to mark the page he was on). "Yo, Gai." He leaned outward so that he could see Deidara. "Ah. Back with more goods to sell, Deidara-san?

"You know it, un." Deidara released the clay from her storage scroll, her creations sprawling across the table. Kakashi took one—a small dragon—in his hand and examined it with his good eye. The other eye—his left eye—had a pink scar across it, a souvenir from when it had been rendered useless.

"Non-explosive?" Kakashi questioned casually, setting the dragon to the side.

"Do you even have to ask? I'm not an idiot, un." Deidara planted her hands on her hips, looking around. "By the way, where's Obito? I was expecting him to be here today, bothering you to hell and back."

"Oh, he's having a friendly meeting with one of his cousins. I wouldn't expect him to be out for a while."

"Cousins? Any idea which one?"

Gai, who had been thoroughly ignored for the majority of the conversation, interrupted, "Kakashi! As soon as your boss comes back—"

"We're co-owners, Gai."

"—I challenge you to a noble round of juggling poultry!"

Kakashi blinked slowly. "What."

Deidara couldn't help but stare when Gai produced a squawking chicken out of seemingly nowhere. When did he...?

"I have heard from a very credible source that juggling chooks is considered an art in a distant land!" Gai insisted.

"Art?" Deidara scoffed. "Yeah, right, un. Whoever said that must have been dropped on the head a few times. There is nothing beautiful or remotely artful about juggling chickens."

Kakashi sighed, knowing how vehement Deidara could get about her art. "I'll pay you a few thousand ryo for everything, Deidara."

"Only a few thousand? You're swindling me, Kakashi, un." Nevertheless, Deidara handed over her clay creations in exchange for the money. As she counted her money to the side, absently watching Kakashi serve a customer while Gai bothered him about juggling chickens, she noticed a blond boy loudly talking to a group of people.

"And he hardly moved! But he pushed Hoshigaki-sama's whole body away! With one hand!" the boy shouted, bouncing up and down excitedly. "Itachi-sama is so cool!"

"Right?!" a girl added, nodding excitedly, her blonde fringe covering the right side of her face. "Itachi-senpai is so handsome..."

Yamanaka Ino, Deidara realized, remembering how Ino had hugged Hitomi when Deidara's spider had 'attacked' them, ready to take the brunt of the damage if it meant protecting her sister. And that boy must be one of the orphans working at the cotton mill if his clothes are any indication. In contrast to Ino's clean appearance, the boy was dressed scruffily, his hair uncombed and his face dirty. Why would someone like Yamanaka, who comes from a rich family, hang out with a no-name orphan, un?

"He pushed him with one hand?" a younger boy repeated, skeptical. He was likely also an orphan, his state of dress being similar to Naruto's. "That sounds fishy to me, Naruto."

"Believe it, Konohamaru, the only thing fishy about the match was the shark guy!" Naruto continued on with his account of yesterday's events. "Anyway, Itachi-sama totally had him beat, but Hoshigaki refused to admit defeat, and jumped on Itachi like an angry dog, dattebayo!"

Daichi, who was practicing serving customers with the goldfish man, was listening intently to the conversation. Wow, Itachi-nii is so cool... He turned to the grandpa that ran the shop. "Ojii-sama, can I go and bring tea to my otou-san and Itachi-sama?"

"Go right on ahead," said the grandpa.

"Thank you!"

"Hey, did you hear that?" Deidara said to Kakashi once he was free of his customer. "Hoshigaki from yesterday's taijutsu display was beaten by Itachi of all people, un. Isn't that guy a pacifist?"

"Don't be so quick to write him off, Deidara," Kakashi chided, his eyes lifting momentarily from his book. "Itachi may be a pacifist, but he's fiercely protective of his family. He's not an idiot either—he knows that he needs to be able to defend himself and his family, which is why he created the Amaterasu fighting style. It's unique only to him, and perhaps Izumi-san, which is why it's not easily countered."

"Indeed!" Gai agreed. "I once challenged Itachi-sama to a sparring match, and found myself devoured by the gaping jaws of defeat! Even now, I train hard in hopes of defeating him! That goes for you, too, my Eternal Rival, Kakashi!"

"Huh." Deidara raised both of her eyebrows at Gai's declaration. Despite his exterior, Gai was a very proficient taijutsu user, and well respected in the community for his skills. He had no kekkei genkai either, which made his prowess much more impressive. He was even considered part of the "Big 4", a group of master taijutsu users, which also included Uchiha Obito, Deidara herself, and Uchiha Shisui.

"Maybe later," Kakashi said when Gai opened his mouth to challenge him to chicken juggling. "You know, when I'm not... alive."

Deidara snorted at Gai's dismayed expression before noticing Daichi hurrying past with a tray of tea in his hands. "Hey, kid! You're going to spill that if you hold it like that, un." She walked over to Daichi and took the tray from him. "What's the rush?"

"Deidara-nee!" Daichi looked faintly embarrassed. "Well, I know that otou-san is meeting with Itachi-nii today, and I wanted to congratulate him on his win against Hoshigaki-sama..."

"Aa." She smiled down at him. "Let's go, then. I'll help you carry it, un."

"Thanks, nee-chan!"

"I thought Hoshigaki was good, but his defense was pretty terrible," Naruto was saying as Deidara and Daichi passed the group of teenagers. "He was beaten up like a loser dummy, dattebayo!"

Deidara's lip curled. "That kid has no business speaking so flippantly of a taijutsu master, un," she muttered to Daichi. "Don't end up like that, or your mother will skin you."

Daichi cocked his head. "But if he can do it, why can't I?"

"Because he's an orphan. He doesn't know any better because he never had anyone to teach him. He doesn't have parents," she clarified when Daichi still looked confused.

"Oh..." Daichi blinked up at her. "Do you have parents, Deidara-nee?"

Deidara smiled. "I did, once, but not anymore."

"What happened to them?"

"Ah, well..." Deidara shrugged. "Life, un. Then death. They're one thread, the same line viewed from different sides. I suppose that they were closer to one side than the other, un."

As they neared the room where Obito and Itachi were conferring, voices drifted through the air. It was mere idle conversation, so they wouldn't be interrupting anything special.

"Morning," Deidara greeted. "Daichi wanted to bring you some tea."

"It's freshly brewed!" Daichi added.

"Aw, thanks, squirt!" Obito chuckled, taking a cup as soon as Deidara set the tray down on the table. "Hey, Itachi, you take one, too."

"Thank you, Daichi-kun," Itachi said as he took the remaining cup and the pot.

"Y-you're welcome. I, uh, um..."

Deidara grabbed his shoulders and pushed him forward so that he was standing closer to Itachi. "Hey, stop stuttering, un. You wanted to come up here, didn't you?"

Itachi's features softened ever so slightly at the sight of Daichi twiddling his thumbs. He's a lot more nervous than Sasuke used to be... "Did you want to tell me something, Daichi-kun?"

"Yes!" Daichi blurted. "You're super cool! I heard that you fought with Hoshigaki-sama of the Demon Shark! And you beat him really quickly! Is that true?"

Itachi blinked, halting his teacup's journey from the table to his mouth. "Who told you that?"

"One of the workers at the cotton mill. Uhh, Uzumaki, was it? I can't remember."

"Naruto?" Obito suggested.

"Yeah, I think so."

"Was the duel supposed to be private, Itachi-san?" Deidara inquired, sensing the tense vibes that had suddenly sprung up around Itachi. From what I've heard, Hoshigaki-sama recently started his own school. It would be detrimental to his reputation if his defeat were to be made public.

"Ah, Deidara," Obito said hesitantly. "We have a lot of things to discuss. Could you please leave us for now? You too, Daichi."

"Aww..." Daichi pouted.

"Right, I'll leave you to your private business, un," Deidara said, taking Daichi by the hand. "Come on, kid, don't make that face. I'll blow something up for you, if you want?"

"Okay!"


Kisame walked into his dojo, sipping tea and acknowledging the greetings his disciples gave him before returning to their katas. It was a good morning. Too bad it had to be ruined when one of his newest disciples ran up to him, looking frantic.

"Hoshigaki-sama!"

"Yes?" Kisame raised an eyebrow. "Problem, Goshiki?"

"I heard that you were beaten by Itachi-sama—"

Kisame spat out his tea.

"—everybody in Akatsuki knows about it by now!"

"Nonsense!" Kisame snapped, trying to regain his composure. Shit! What the hell?!

"One of the orphans at the cotton mill in the marketplace was talking about it!" Goshiki insisted. "Uzumaki Naruto!"

"Hrr!" Kisame pushed his empty tea cup into Goshiki's hands, marching off to the marketplace. How dare they! How dare they!

Back in their private room, Itachi sighed contently as he took another sip from the tea Daichi and Deidara had brought in. "Whoever made this... has excellent taste. Wouldn't you agree, Obito?"

"Definitely." Obito hummed. "You know, Itachi, everything in Akatsuki is costly nowadays. It means that the economy is good, and everyone can afford to spend money. Clothing is an essential in our daily lives, and they'll be lots of demand for clothing in the near future. Rin and I have the cotton mill, but we were thinking to hire thread-spinners as well. To do that, however, I'm going to need your partnership."

"And my expenses," Itachi added.

Obito grinned. "Yeah, and that, too. But it'll be a good investment!"

"Business has never been my forte."

"Ah, but it's mine!"

Itachi wasn't swayed. "I'm not in need of any money at the moment."

Downstairs, Kisame stormed in through the entrance, his fearsome sword, Samehada, strapped onto his back. "Who the hell is Uzumaki Naruto?!"

"That's me!" Naruto, who was sitting at a table with his friends, turned in his seat and raised his hand up. There was an empty ramen bowl in front of him.

Kakashi looked up from his book. Gai had gone somewhere else, and he'd been hoping for some peace and quiet. The silver-haired man sighed, putting his book down. I can never catch a break, can I?

Taken aback by Naruto's blatant behavior, Kisame lifted his robes and stalked over to the Uzumaki orphan, grabbing him by the shirt and lifting him up in the air effortlessly, much to the horror of his friends.

"You rascal! You ruined my reputation! Do you have any idea what kind of damage you have caused?!"

There was a breeze of wind, and, suddenly, Kakashi was there, pulling them apart. "Maa, maa," he chided. "This kid is my... ward. Why don't we talk? But before that, you should probably calm down, Hoshigaki-sama. This is a popular establishment, after all."

"Your ward?" Kisame's lip curled in disgusted anger. "He ruined my reputation! He said I was beaten by Uchiha Itachi. What the hell is going to happen to my martial arts club?! Who will want to be my disciples?!"

To the side, Daichi was cowering at Deidara's side. The woman herself didn't look too impressed at Kisame's behavior, though it was warranted. The man's reputation had gone down the drain, after all. He was likely having a case of tunnel vision, and didn't see the additional damage his outbursts were having on his standing.

"Is everything going to be alright?" Daichi whispered.

"Everything will be fine, un," Deidara reassured him, patting his head. "Kakashi's got this. And I'm here, too, you know."

"Ah, I see. Naruto, I think it's best if you apologize."

"What?!" Naruto was outraged. "I didn't do anything wrong! I just told the truth, dattebayo!"

Deidara sighed. Has this boy no brain? There are some things that just don't need to be said, un.

"Enough of your bullshit!" Kisame snarled, grabbing at Naruto again. "You—"

"Maa, maa, maa, maa, maa, maa," Kakashi protested again. "Hoshigaki-sama, please calm down." He shot Naruto a stern glare, but the orphan boy was unrepentant.

"Wow, six times!" Konohamaru muttered in the background.

"Itachi-sama is upstairs!" Naruto growled. "Go and seek him out if you have the guts, fishbrain!" Then he turned and took off upstairs to where Itachi was staying.

Sharing an outraged glance, Kakashi and Kisame followed him, along with a crowd of people.

"Come on," Deidara said, picking Daichi up and following the crowd. "Hardly anything ever happens around here, un. Like hell I'm missing this!"

"Don't be too angry," Kakashi was cautioning Kisame, but the shark didn't seem to be listening. "Hoshigaki-sama!" Argh, Naruto, you idiot! You're making my job very, very difficult!

"Itachi-sama!" Naruto called into the open room where Obito and Itachi were. "There's this weirdo trying to kill me just for telling the truth!" The crowd caught up to him and Naruto turned back momentarily. "Itachi-sama, tell these guys that you beat Hoshigaki-sama in a spar!"

The dumpling that had been on a journey to Itachi's mouth fell onto his plate as Kisame glared murderously at him, Obito, Naruto, and then Kakashi.

Then Deidara spoke. "Ne, Itachi-san, did you enjoy the tea?"

All heads turned to the brazen woman, who looked unaffected by everything that had happened thus far. "Daichi brewed it himself, you know, un."

Itachi managed a smile. "It was delightful, thank you for asking."

"Is Izumi well?"

"She is."

"Uh," Obito cut in. "What's going on here, guys? Kakashi?" He looked to his longtime friend for answers. Kakashi merely shrugged, pointing at Kisame, whose chest was heaving.

"Itachi-sama," Kisame began. "You've got to clear my name."

"Hoshigaki-sama..."

Kakashi, who had had enough of the smug look on Naruto's face, whacked him across his head. "Oi, Naruto. Why would you bother Itachi-sama for all this bullshit?"

"I'm not lying or anything!" Naruto shot back. "I saw the fight when I was picking up my kite! It's the truth, dattebayo!"

Kakashi shook his head. "Even if it was true, you shouldn't have told everyone. There are certain things that shouldn't be said." This boy was seriously going to be the death of him.

"What's wrong with admitting to the truth?!"

"Oh, a whole lot of things, un," Deidara chuckled dryly, capturing Naruto's attention for one moment.

"Because it might cause embarrassment for others!" Kakashi hissed.

"What embarrassment?!" Naruto shouted, like he didn't know of such a thing.

"What embarrassment?" Suddenly, flames seemed to burn behind Kakashi as he stood up straight and loomed over Naruto, who was quickly losing his bluster.

"Uh..."

"I'll show you what embarrassment is. ONE THOUSAND YEARS OF DEATH!"

"GWAAAHHH!" Naruto went flying through the air, nearly hitting his head on the roof as he fell to the ground and hopped away, clutching his rear end.

Deidara went slack-jawed, her face becoming shadowed, as did most of the people gathered, as Kakashi had jabbed his fingers up Naruto's ass in what seemed to be a very painful manner.

"Deidara-nee?"

Deidara glanced down at Daichi, who was trembling.

"I... My body no longer feels safe."

"You and me both, un."

Itachi sighed, getting up from his seat and walking over to Kakashi. He placed a firm hand on the silver-haired man's shoulder. "Kakashi-san, there was really no need for such... drastic measures."

Someone coughed in the crowd; the sound was covered by giggles.

"What's with all the commotion?" a voice growled, and the crowd grew quiet and parted. "Am I invisible or something? Why the hell were you all laughing?"

Daichi further hid behind Deidara at the sight of an imposing figure. Or, rather, Uchiha Sasuke. Sasuke's military boots clicked against the wooden flooring as he approached Kakashi and Itachi. In the room, Obito had his legs kicked up on the table, intending to watch the proceedings with a grin.

"Captain," Kakashi said smoothly. "It's no big deal—"

"What's no big deal?" Sasuke lifted his chin to look the taller man in the eye. "I saw everything. I'm warning you all..." He turned to the crowd, his sharingan spinning in his eyes for the added intimidation factor. "Anyone who causes trouble on my turf will be dealt with."

Obito rolled his eyes. Sasuke, Sasuke... what a ham!

"I wasn't causing any trouble," Kisame said when Sasuke's gaze lingered on the shark-man. "My name was ruined. I am only here to claim justice."

"Justice? I am justice," Sasuke sneered at Kisame before turning that sneer to Itachi, who was gazed back impassively. "You barbarians are fighting all the time with no regard for others." He turned that terrible sneer onto Deidara, too, who sneered back. "What kind of age is this? The Stone Age? Still talking about taijustsu? This is the age of guns!" To make a point, he pulled out his own gun, making a few civilians flinch back. "Guns. Got it?" The boy moved in a circle, eventually ending up facing Itachi, pointing the gun right at his brother's face. "And you... you disgrace to the family!"

"Otouto—"

"Quiet," Sasuke commanded, his voice dangerously low.

Itachi fell silent, though his eyes, still coal black in the face of Sasuke's red sharingan, were unyielding. Then his arm shot up, wrapping his hand around Sasuke's hand—the one that held the gun.

Everyone held their breath.

"Deidara-nee, what's happening?" Daichi whispered.

But Deidara didn't answer the boy this time, too focused on what was going to happen next. Was Sasuke really going to shoot his brother in the face? What happened next was almost too fast for her to catch.

Itachi's pointer finger, in one swift movement, pushed the round of bullets from the gun. It bounced once against the wall before clattering to the ground, the chakra-enhanced bullets spilling out.

Sasuke glared murderously at him.

Itachi merely stared back, eyes expressionless. Then he walked past Sasuke, bending down to pick up the bullets and the casing. "Otouto. We taijutsu users are energetic. Sometimes, we talk too loud. But that doesn't mean we are uncivilized." He dropped the bullets into Sasuke's hand. "We are civilized people. So please do not pull the gun out on us again."

"Oi, Sasuke!" Obito decided it was time to make his entrance, pushing between Kakashi and Itachi to get to the younger Uchiha. "You're working too hard, as usual. Hey, Kakashi, go set up a table. It's on me, 'kay?"

Kakashi shrugged before doing so. "Your funeral."

Sasuke, who rather liked Obito despite his loud, obnoxious disposition, scowled. "Fine." He turned to the crowd. "What are you looking at? Get lost!" Alarmed, the civilians all left, leaving only Deidara, Daichi, and Kisame to remain behind. Unbothered, Sasuke gruffly allowed Kakashi to lead him to a table.

"Well, Hoshigaki-sama," Deidara spoke up. "As you please."

"As you please," Itachi repeated, and both martial artists put their hands together in a show of respect.

Kisame, who had significantly calmed down, did the same. "Aa."

When Kisame was gone, Itachi turned to Deidara. "Did you fight with Sasori yesterday?"

"I did, un. Problem?"

Itachi smiled. "None at all. Tea?"

Deidara shrugged. "I don't see why not, un. Wanna come, Daichi? You can sit with your idol."

"C-can I?"

Itachi nodded. "You're welcome, too, Daichi-kun."

"T-thank you!"


Sasori was the last one to enter, and Obito gave him a short nod as he sat down opposite Itachi and him.

"Why so secretive?" the puppeteer asked.

"I'm not a businessman," Itachi replied, tossing a brown pack of money at them both. "This way would simply be better. Obito mentioned he had another partner he scouted for his ambition. I didn't realize that it would be you."

"Aa. And I didn't realize that we'd be partners as well."

"Take this to buy the equipment and hired help you need. Pay me back if you make a profit."

Obito blinked. "You sure? It might take a while."

"Take your time."

"One more thing I want from you two," Obito said, and both men tensed. "It's about my son..."

"Daichi-kun?" Itachi said.

"Yeah..." Obito rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, grinning. "I just wanted your input on something. Do you think that I should start training him? Or should I wait for a few more years?"

"I'd start now," Sasori suggested, crossing one leg across the other. "It's never too early to start learning how to defend yourself, especially in a world full of taijutsu masters."

"Agreed," Itachi put in. "Except... Don't go overboard."

Obito nodded. "Then it's settled. Thanks for coming. Oh, and Sasori, tell your grandmother that the rice was great."

"Wha—" Sasori glared at Itachi. "That was for your mouth, not his."

The younger Uchiha shrugged. "Does it matter whose mouth it goes to, as long as somebody is fed?"

"Hrr, I suppose..."

Obito laughed heartily. "We're going to make a great trio. Our clothes and cotton will be known as the finest in the land. I just know it!"

 

Chapter Text

The wind blew through the trees, and a rustling noise reached Deidara's ears. She stood in the middle of the training field with her eyes closed, her fingers held up in front of her face. She was vaguely aware of Gai practicing his taijutsu on the other side of the field, vigorously attacking the wooden training dummy. It spun at the same speed that Gai moved every time he struck it.

They weren't the only ones occupying the training field behind Obito's house—the man himself was there, as was another one of his many relatives, Uchiha Shisui. Daichi watched from afar, sitting on the low branch of a tree and swinging his legs about.

"Katsu!" From seemingly out of nowhere, Deidara flung her explosive clay in all directions, each of the explosive devices hitting a wooden training dummy. They were merely C1 level, however—she was aiming for excellent control and aim, not power. As soon as they were hit, she engaged one in combat, striking fast and hard with her arms and legs, the training dummy deflecting each blow with its wooden arms. "Ha!" The wood splintered and promptly exploded as she gave it a palm strike in the center.

"Deidara!" Obito's voice shouted as he stopped his own training. "You know how expensive those are?!"

"You're rich, un," she shot back. "Buying a couple more hundred won't even make a dent in your bank account!"

"Alright, ladies," Shisui gave a long-suffering sigh, but smiled anyway, putting his tanto back into its holster. "I think a break might be in order. We've been training since dawn, after all. Just look at where the sun is."

"Yosh!" Gai joined them, retreating from his own training corner, and gave them a hearty thumbs-up. "Our wives are sure to be waiting at home with excellent home-cooked meals!"

Obito sweatdropped. "I'm the only married one here..."

Deidara snorted. "Somehow."

"Hey!"

"Otou-san, you did great!" Daichi jumped down from the low-hanging branch and ran toward his father as fast as his short legs would allow. "But Deidara-nee was so awesome as well! She made one explode!"

"We could have done the same," Shisui pointed out, giving Deidara a sly glance. "We just have more control, that's all."

"Subtle," Deidara huffed, crossing her arms. Her green gi was covered in dust—the other members of the Big 4 were in a similar state.

The members of the Big 4—as they were known as by the general community—retreated back to Obito's house, where the servants had set up a table full of food for them. Rin was out managing either the dango shop or the cotton mill, and Hikari was sleeping somewhere in the house.

"No rice?!"

Deidara wasn't the only that winced when Obito shrieked that out.

"How did we run out of rice?" Obito demanded, the servant cringing back away from his whiny master. "It's, like, a staple food!" When the servant proceeded to babble something about rats getting into their rice stores and that the problem was currently being tended to, Obito sighed out, "There's only one thing to do now..."

"Go out and eat?" Shisui suggested. He hummed thoughtfully. "But then this spread would go to waste... Any ideas, Gai?"

"All we are missing is rice," Gai said, nodding. "I suggest that we buy our own rice field and harvest the crops! Then we shall all live together happily with a kangaroo in our backyard!" He yelped when Deidara whacked him across the head with what seemed to be a paper fan.

"That would take way too long!" she shouted. "And what the hell's a kangaroo, un?!"

"Maa, maa," Obito calmed them down. "It's okay, I know a lady that makes the best chicken rice in the world."

About fifteen minutes later, Sasori entered the house, a deadpan expression on his face and carrying a box of takeaway. He had a long-suffering look about him, one that was far more developed than Shisui's own expression of long-suffering.

"Delivery," he intoned, using his chakra threads to place the box on the table. "What?" he said when he caught Deidara staring at him.

"Nothing, un. Just..." She struggled to keep down a laugh, biting her lip. "Nothing...!"

Gai, on the other hand, guffawed with wild abandon, and Shisui and Obito couldn't help but snicker as well.

Sasori sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose in embarrassment. "I knew I shouldn't have agreed to baa-sama's uniform requests..." He was dressed in a ridiculous red button-up shirt and pants with a sash around his waist. There was a rooster insignia stitched on the back of the uniform, a far cry from the scorpion crest he normally wore on the back of his attire.

"It's not that bad," Obito tried to comfort him, holding out his hands.

Sasori deadpanned at him.

"Okay, it's pretty bad," Obito amended. "In any case, wanna join us for lunch?"

Since Chiyo's Chicken Rice was technically closed today (as were many food establishments, thanks to it being a weekend), and Sasori had only delivered because he and Obito were business partners, he sat down at the table with the rest of the Big 4 and Daichi. He also shed his uniform to reveal that he was wearing his normal clothing—a grey tunic and dark pants—underneath, scorpion insignia and all.

As they ate, they made idle conversation, Daichi merely listening as he poked his rice with his chopsticks.

"And then she exploded it!" Obito was telling Sasori, who was picking up some chicken from a dish.

"Tsk," Sasori clicked his tongue, his brown eyes shifting to Deidara, who'd been listening with a small grimace. "How typical of you. Brats your age never have the kind of self control that comes with age."

"Brats my age could kick your ass, old man," Deidara retorted, her grip on her chopsticks tightening. "You know, we never did have their rematch... I was just releasing some of my frustration."

"Oh boy," Shisui said through a mouthful of rice. "Do I even want to know the story behind this one?"

"Long story short, they had an argument about art," Obito explained. "Hey, Gai, care to do the honors of refereeing the match? Shisui and I are going to be teaching Daichi the Uchiha Style this afternoon."

"If that is what my friend wishes, it shall be so!" Gai agreed. "May we have a clean, youthful match."

Sasori raised an eyebrow. "You know, I came here to eat, not fight."

"Does it matter?" asked Deidara. "You're here now, un." She lifted a palm, the mouth on it sticking out a tongue as Deidara smirked. "What? Too chicken?"

Normally, such a jibe wouldn't have roused Sasori. But this went deeper than that—Deidara wasn't mocking just his courage, she was mocking his occupation as well, as well as that ridiculous getup. So Sasori steeled his gaze. "I look forward to our match. Perhaps there's something more than bark in you, brat."

Shisui chuckled. "Ne, Daichi, got anybody in mind for a rival?"

"A rival?" Daichi echoed. "Do I need one?"

"Well, sure. Gai has Kakashi," Shisui gestured to Gai, who nodded, "Those two have each other, apparently," Sasori and Deidara spared him a brief glance, "and your dad has me and Kakashi."

"Kakashi again," Deidara commented. "I'm pretty sure that orphan from the fiasco the other day considers him his rival as well, un."

"Kakashi..." Sasori mused. "Wasn't he once a samurai?"

Deidara was taken aback. "Was he? I know he was a warrior once before retiring, but a samurai?" Seriously? That arrogant troll (who also happens to be my source of income...) was a samurai?

"I'm certain," Sasori answered, his voice hard. "His father..." He trailed off, refusing to say anymore on the matter. "Do you want to start?" he asked Deidara. "I don't have all day, you know."

Obito snorted. "You make it sound like your a busy man. All you do is wake up, eat, train until the sun sets, sleep, and repeat the process again."

"I go for walks sometimes," Sasori stated mildly, as if that justified his mundane routines. "Not to mention that Chiyo-baa-sama has me running deliveries when she's not bothered to. The woman's more fit than young men less than half her age..."

Once they finished eating, they immediately vacated to the training yard again, the Uchiha occupying a space for themselves to train Daichi while Sasori, Deidara, and Gai had the rest of the barren, tree-surrounded field to themselves.

"Alright!" Gai boomed, standing with his legs spread apart and his arms crossed. "I want a clean match, you two! Which means no more than one gallon of blood spilled from the both of you, got it?"

"Combined or individual?" Sasori inquired.

"Combined!"

"Well, then... that gives me less leeway. No matter." He popped two puppets out of the storage scroll he always carried with him. "You'd better watch your head, brat. Or you might find yourself without it."

"Bite me, asshole."

"Match... begin!" Gai announced.

Sasori sent his puppets forward to meet Deidara, and she traded blows with one, then the other before throwing a bomb to obscure the three of them. She burst through the smoke after that, and met Sasori in close combat. Even as he levitated the puppets with his chakra strings, Sasori was still able to fight her at the same time. She spun out of the way of one of his puppets, only to run right into the other one.

There was a click, and a large blade flipped out of the one of the puppet's limbs. Deidara skirted out of the way just in time, flipping through the air and elbowing the other puppet in its wooden face. The one with the blade came after her, and she dodged quickly, grimacing when it manage to make tear in her gi. The blade swung at her again, slamming into the ground when she jumped out of the way.

Using the momentarily stuck sword as a makeshift platform, she ran up the large blade, littering small amounts of clay between its joints before leaping off to face the other one. "Katsu!"

There was a loud explosion that distracted Daichi from his basic katas, earning him a smack on the head with a wooden pole, courtesy of Shisui.

Deidara was still fighting the other puppet when Sasori officially jumped into the fray, spurred by the fiery destruction of his other puppet, and forcing the blonde woman on defense.

His elbow knocked against her jaw and nose, and she nearly caught her tongue between her teeth. As her teeth clattered together, she swung her leg upward, landing a hit on nearly the exact same place that he had struck her.

There was a whirring noise and a load of kunai rained upon Deidara, courtesy of the puppet. Cursing, she evaded the weapons to the best of her ability, but some still managed to cut her. Grumbling, she spat out a wad of blood and mucus which had come from her bleeding nose. Sasori had rigged the launch of the kunai so that there would be painful criss-cross cuts across the victim's skin, the wounds on Deidara's arms and legs being testimony of that.

"Looks like I've drawn first blood," Sasori said, massaging his jaw as they stood apart from each other. "You've been extremely troublesome, blowing up one of my puppets like that... You're lucky I don't normally carry with me more than two at a time."

"Heh..." Deidara grinned, her teeth red as she wiped the blood dribbling from her nose away. "Does that piss you off? Exploding one of your precious puppets with my art? I've told you before, my art is superior."

"And yet, you are the one bleeding out onto the Uchiha training grounds, not me." An irk mark appeared on his forehead. "And yes, I'm damn pissed. Do you have any idea how long it takes to build one from scratch, brat?"

"I'm glad that you're angry." She shifted into a stance, ignoring the blood dripping down from her cuts. "That makes me extremely happy, you know. Now why don't we prove whose art is superior once and for all?"

Sasori sneered at her. "You'll be calling me Danna after this."

Gai coughed into his fist, a slight blush adorning his cheeks from the implicaton. "Ready to restart?" How youthful their rivalry is!

They gave him no verbal response, Deidara answering by dashing toward Sasori, only for her punches to be blocked by his puppet's. Her chakra flared through her body, and she cracked through the puppet armor, making Sasori frown.

Deidara's hand disappeared into her sleeve before reappearing with pre-molded clay between her fingers. "Ready to fight me on your own? I'll destroy your other dummy if I have to."

"It wouldn't be a battle of art if I were to do so," Sasori pointed out, floating his puppet beside him like it was a shinigami. The thing was larger than he himself, and had a face worthy of nightmares.

"True, un. Take solace that it'll be probably be going out with a bang."

Their battle resumed once more, Deidara alternating between hand-to-hand combat with the puppet master and trying to destroy his annoying puppet with her clay.

"You have excellent chakra control," Sasori remarked as he blocked Deidara's fist. "You could do a lot more with that clay than just explosions."

"Yeah, but..." Deidara broke through his defense, forcing him to leap a few steps backwards. "There's nothing artful about that. Because art...!" Sasori held up his forearms just in time to shield his body from Deidara's heavy blow. "Is a bang! Katsu!"

"What—"

There was an explosion that engulfed Sasori, and smoke billowed out. When the smoke dispersed, Sasori was still standing, albeit glaring with cuts and burns littering his body. "What the hell did you do?"

"I'm creative," Deidara replied, a smirk on her face. "When you told me that I could do a lot more than explosions, I improvised, un. Created a thin clay armor on my fists that I spread onto your clothing in small chunks every time I made contact with you."

Sasori's gaze darkened. "I see." Jaw rattling, his puppet flew toward Deidara, blades at the ready, but though she was wounded, she was still agile enough to dodge them without risking further injury.

"You're slower, un," she taunted. "I'm not the only one who's 'bleeding out onto the training grounds' now, am I?"

"You'll be bleeding a whole lot more when I'm done with you, you insufferable brat."

More blades appeared on the puppet, these ones curved like a person's rib cage, and swung mercilessly at Deidara, who had to run up a tree at the edge of the field to escape the puppet's wrath. She jumped backward as the puppet twisted around and continued to attack her. She scowled when the tip of a blade nicked her. She was tiring quickly thanks to the wounds she had gotten earlier in the fight, and she would lose if she didn't do something quick.

Dammit! she cursed inwardly, having to backflip unsteadily to dodge one particularly fast moving blade. More clay emerged from the mouths on her hands, and she threw them at the wooden behemoth, turning her attention on Sasori, who had shifted his stance in preparation.

Deidara could feel his chakra probing at her body, testing if she had anymore of that clay armor on her hands. I shouldn't have told him... shit, I'm so screwed. Satisfied that she was clean, he defended himself, their blood mixing as they fought hard and fast.

Perhaps it was the heat of the battle that got to him, but Sasori was no longer dividing any time to attacking with his real body and attacking with his puppet. His puppet lay strewn on the ground, useless, as he fully engaged with Deidara, who hadn't noticed what he'd done just yet.

"Deidara," Sasori said as he swept her feet out from under her, his eyes never leaving her as she got up instantly. Both of them were breathing heavily. "You should pay more attention to your surroundings."

Her gaze sharpened. "You—" She hissed when something sharp sliced across the back of her right shoulder, sending a spray of blood flying through the air. Muttering curses, she involuntarily fell to her knees. The puppet! Shit!

"It's over," Sasori declared.

"Fuck... it's not." Deidara glared up at him, her eyes cloudy with pain. A chill went down her spine when she felt the cold blade of Sasori's puppet resting on her neck.

"Yes, it is, brat. You fought well. It's time to give up."

"Asshole..." She bared her bloodied teeth at him.

"I think you mean 'Danna'."

"Oh, sorry," she bit out sarcastically. "Forgive me for my insolence, Danna."

A muscle twitched in Sasori's jaw. On second thoughts, it doesn't sound as good as I thought it would, especially coming from her mouth. "I changed my mind. Don't call me that."

"Get a healer over here, Danna, and we'll see." Deidara buckled underneath her own weight, and Sasori caught her before she could hit the ground. It would do her no good for her to get even dirtier than she already was, what, with those injuries and all. He looked up and saw Gai running toward them. His puppet lay on the ground, forgotten.

"That was a youthful battle!" Gai proclaimed. "But for now, it would be extremely unyouthful for you two to stay out here and bleed! Come into the house—Obito has gone to get a healer. Well done, you two. The power of youth runs through your veins!"

As Gai chattered on about how great they'd been while helping Deidara and Sasori walk painstakingly back into the house, Deidara hummed, the sound nasally thanks to the blood clogging her nose. "You know, I think I'll stick with calling you 'Danna' from now on, un." She smirked at Sasori, knowing how much it irritated him and enjoying every moment of it because of that. "It has a nice ring to it, don't you think, Danna?"

"By calling me that, you're admitting that my art is superior to yours," Sasori told her, scowling.

"Nonsense, un. It just means that I respect your art because you bested me in battle. Your puppets still have nothing against my explosions."

"Tch. Think what you like, brat."

Both of them flinched when Gai began to cry, tears rolling down his cheeks in comical waves. "The senpai and the kohai! Master and apprentice! How youthful this relationship is!"

"I am not her master!" Sasori snapped, wincing when he felt the large burn on his cheek throb with a vengeance.

"Like hell I'd ever be this guy's apprentice!" Deidara added indignantly.

Gai sat Sasori on a stool and laid Deidara on a spare futon in the drawing room, hastily collecting towels. Shisui came to relieve him from all the work, having left Daichi to perform his katas until he perfected them.

"You two seriously messed each other up," Shisui said as he dabbed at Sasori's wounds with a wet cloth, Gai doing the same for Deidara. "I mean, I get that you're rivals in art and all, but man!"

Obito arrived soon with the healer in tow—a pink-haired woman with the brightest green eyes any of them had ever seen. She was wearing the traditional healer grab: a white outer garment with gold highlights. When she removed the cloak and hung it on a nearby chair, it revealed that she wore a plain red yukata underneath.

"This is Haruno-sama, one of the best healers in the city," Obito briefly introduced. "She'll be taking care of you two."

The woman bowed. "Nice to meet all of you. Please call me Sakura-san. -sama was used to refer to my shishou."

Obito gave her a friendly smile. "Tsunade-sama from the north, right?"

"Right." Sakura returned the smile before getting straight to work. "Medical jutsu is classified as a very rare kekkei genkai—once I heal you, you'll feel brand new." She gave Sasori and Deidara a look. "However, I don't want you two fighting or training for at least a few days. It wouldn't do to have your body undergo immense strain after just being healed."

"Doctors," Deidara muttered, while Sasori made a noise that sounded like begrudging agreement. Either to Deidara's remark or Sakura's orders, nobody was sure.

"Yeah, well, this doctor is about to save your life," Sakura said in a clipped tone. "Now don't move..."

The healing process took about fifteen minutes thanks to the intensity of Sasori's burns and how deep the gash on Deidara's back was.

"Don't sit up so soon!" Sakura admonished when Deidara attempted to do just that.

"My joints are stiff, un," Deidara complained.

"Just give your body five minutes to adjust," huffed Sakura. "Please," she added as an afterthought, evaluating her bedside manner in her head. At least she wasn't as bad as her master yet.

Yet.

A servant hurried to them, bowing hastily. "Obito-sama, Sasuke-sama is at the door."

Deidara's mood soured. Sasuke again? She hadn't seen him since the Hoshigaki-Uzumaki fiasco a few weeks ago, and had hoped to keep it that way. That boy had a stick so far up his ass, it was messing with his brain as well.

"Oh, right on time," Obito said. "Let him in. He's supposed to be teaching Daichi how to use a gun."

"Excuse me," Sakura interrupted. "Is this the same Sasuke as the Chief of Police's son?"

"Indeed he is," Shisui said. "Hey, Gai, you might want to step aside before my cousin tries to arrest you... again."

"But I'm not disturbing the public this time!" protested Gai. "I wasn't even disturbing the public last time."

"You threw a chicken at an old lady," Shisui pointed out.

"Just a minor accident. Happens to the best of us."

"So it is that Sasuke," Sakura sighed sadly before steeling her eyes. "Stupid jerk..."

"Can I sit up now?" Deidara said loudly. "Danna—Sasori's already gone to get his ugly puppet."

"Hm? Oh, yes, you can, but take it easy. He really roughed you up."

Deidara grimaced, sitting up and popped the joints in her shoulders and neck. "Got history with Duck-Ass?"

Sakura blinked. "Duck-ass?"

"Y'know... because his hair looks like a duck's ass, un."

Sakura held a hand over her mouth, snickering. "Oh my god, you're right! Now that I think about it..."

Sasuke strode into the room with Obito, looking thunderous as always. At the same time, Sasori returned from his venture outside, carrying his storage scroll in his hand.

He glanced at all of them once, eyebrow cocked, before going to the training field to meet Daichi.

"He could have said hi," Sakura grumbled. She turned to face them all. "You two should be fine now, so I'll take my leave. And don't strain yourselves!"

Sasori and Deidara exchanged a glance before the latter smirked.

"Oh, we won't," Deidara said. "Right, Danna?"

His wrist flicked, and there was suddenly a blade sticking out of Obito's table—the kunai had barely missed Deidara's nose.

"See? He agrees, un."

"That was a gift from my grandmother," Obito piped up, only to be ignored.

Sakura gave them a dry look. "Might not want to do that in front of a medic next time."


"Daichi! Over here!"

Sarutobi Konohamaru was waving at Daichi in an invitation to join him, Naruto, and a few others at the table. It was lunchtime, and the orphans at the cotton mill were on their break.

"How's your training going?" Konohamaru asked when Daichi took a seat next to him. There were plates of skewers in front of them—from the smell of it, there were once fish balls stuck the sticks. Naruto was devouring his fifth bowl of ramen while Moegi and Udon were picking at their teeth with toothpicks.

Ever since Daichi had started training with his father and Shisui—one half of the Big 4—the orphans had started to tentatively approach him. Daichi knew that prior to starting his new training regimen as a taijutsu user, they had thought little of him, especially since he was their boss' son and heir to the company—a boy set up for life while they had to work for their meals. But they showed interest in him now, and he wasn't about to pass up the chance for new friends.

"It's cool, I guess," Daichi said, trying to downplay everything. But when Yamanaka Ino and Yamanaka Hitomi showed up at the cotton mill slash tea house for tea, Daichi raised his voice. "I'm learning all sorts of new things, like how to slice a man in half five different ways!"

"Uhh," Moegi said, tilting her head to one side. "Is that possible?"

"How can you slice someone in half in five different ways?" Udon wondered, rubbing his nose to chase away a sniffle. "I thought there was only one way, 'cause, y'know," he sliced his arm downward, "this is the only way that you can have matching halves. Symmetry is very important."

Out of the corner of his eye, Daichi saw Hitomi turn away from them. "Uhh..."

It turned out that Naruto was a lot more perceptive than he let on at times. His eyes gleamed. "Oh, I see what's going on here!"

Daichi gulped. "You do?"

"You like her!"

"Not so loud!" Daichi hissed.

"Who, Hitomi?" Konohamaru scowled. "She's pretty and all... but she's a snob. Like her sister. And isn't she younger than you?"

"Oi, Ino isn't that bad," Naruto defended. "She can't help being born rich, y'know. And she's not a snob!"

"Only by two years," argued Daichi. "And she's very mature for her age."

The orphans all watched Hitomi throw a tantrum because the lady serving tea had accidentally spilled a very minuscule drop on the girl's doll. Ino was trying to get her to calm down, looking frazzled when Hitomi grabbed her cup of tea and threatened to hurl it at an innocent patron.

"Are we talking about the same girl?" Moegi wondered, voicing everyone's thoughts.

Daichi grew indignant on Hitomi's part. "Hey!"

"We're calling it like we see it," Udon said, Konohamaru and Naruto nodding once in agreement.

"Oi, you guys!" A girl who wore her chocolate brown hair in twin buns was waving at them. "Break time's over! We have to get back to work. Lee can't spin the cotton wheel himself, you know."

"Coming, Tenten!" Naruto called back. "See ya, Daichi. Show us some of your new moves next time. And that sword you use to cut people in half, too!"

The younger orphans all voiced their agreement and Daichi sweatdropped nervously.

I haven't learnt any cool moves so far! Daichi thought miserably. I shouldn't have said anything about cutting people in half... A shadow loomed over him and Daichi looked up backward, his eyes meeting Sasuke's. "O-oh, hey, Sasuke-sama..."

"Daichi." Sasuke scoffed. "I bet you're regretting showing off so much, huh? Especially to a dobe like Naruto."

"Yeah..." Daichi sighed, plopping his chin on his open palms. "I just wanted them to like me."

"What's the point of that? You're going to be their boss in the future. They're your future subordinates, nothing more."

"But...! I want to be friends with them. I don't have that many friends, y'know."

Sasuke made a noncommittal noise. "Daichi, I know I put a lot of emphasis on guns and modern weapons, but..." His coal gaze slid to Daichi. "I also put great value in the art of kenjutsu."

"Huh?" Daichi blinked. "You mean like swords and stuff? Like Hoshigaki-sama?"

"Exactly, though our styles are nothing alike." Sasuke took out his katana from the holster with a shiing! "Daichi... what do you say about learning kenjutsu? I can't teach you how to cut a man in half five different ways—because, frankly, that's impossible and you're an idiot for ever suggesting the notion—but I can teach you how to gut an opponent and twist in just the right way so that his intestines are shredded."

Daichi's eyes grew wider. "When can we start?"

Sasuke stood. "Tomorrow, first light. Do not be late. If there's one thing I don't tolerate from a student, it's tardiness." Daichi didn't know why but Sasuke pinned his harsh stare on the silver-haired man that worked at the kite shop.

Seemingly oblivious, Kakashi yawned underneath his mask and flipped to the next page of his orange book.

Chapter Text

Summer gave way to autumn quicker than anyone expected, and Izumi's belly grew rounder every day. Itachi had halted his training for the meantime to care for her, despite the insistence of the nurse maid that she was just as competent, if not more. The money that he had given to Obito was put to good use—the elder Uchiha had expanded his factory and made a new sector dedicated to thread-spinners. They were currently undergoing training to use the factory equipment, and some of the orphans had been rotated to thread-spinning as well to balance out the numbers.

Chiyo's Chicken Rice shop was as busy as ever, and, more often that not, Sasori found himself donning a pink apron and serving hungry customers at his grandmother's restaurant, which was located in the martial arts district, nearby the Nohara-Uchiha dango shop. Sometimes, Deidara came in for the sole purpose of annoying him. Sasori did not take well to it, but since she always made sure she was a paying customer, Chiyo refused to ban her from the store. Well, at least her company wasn't always unpleasant, especially after a long day of bitter old men complaining that they'd seen a cockroach in their tea. (Sasori had personally poured that tea himself and there as hell weren't any damn cockroaches).

"You know, Danna, you should consider making pink your permanent color, un."

"I will if you dye your hair to match."

"I'm an artist, not insane."

Akatsuki was thriving as the leaves fell to make way for the coming winter, and Naruto found that he was able to afford another kite since his old fox one had been damaged when he dropped it in the sewer by accident.

"I'm just a few short!" Naruto persisted in pestering Kakashi, who looked like he needed a pair of earplugs right then and there. "Come on, Kakashi-senpai—"

"I have to make a living, too, you know," Kakashi replied calmly, keeping his eyes on his book.

"I eat plain ramen for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!" Naruto whined, pulling the sympathy card.

"So? You love ramen."

"Kakashi!"

Kakashi smiled underneath his mask, not missing the way Naruto had dropped the honorific. "I can't give you one you want... but I do have a kite that's within your budget. Deal?"

"Well..." Naruto looked back at Konohamaru, Moegi, and Udon, who were sitting at their usual table and looking over expectantly. "Oh, fine. But only because my kohais want to play and I have to be a good senpai, dattebayo."

"Pleasure doing business with you, then!" Kakashi chirped, and the coins disappeared into his pocket. "Now, let's see, where was it..."

When Naruto received his kite, he was bitterly disappointed. "What the hell, Kakashi?! It looks like the same paper I wipe my ass with!"

"Sorry, no refunds," Kakashi said, his eyes curving upward as he smiled like the troll he was. "Have fun! Ah, youth..."

"KAKASHI! I'll tell your boss!"

No one had ever seen Kakashi's 'boss' before (or co-owner, according to Kakashi), and many suspected that there was no boss or co-owner to begin with, and that Hatake Kakashi was just being a major troll.

Naruto, however, had yet to come to that conclusion.

"Go ahead, Naruto," Kakashi said nonchalantly. "He came this morning."

"Dammit! I missed him again?!"

"Mm. Tough luck, eh, Naruto?"

Grumbling, Naruto left with his new kite, half-complaining and half-apologizing to Konohamaru and his gang for the kite's poor craftsmanship. Kakashi relaxed his posture, slumping into his chair and putting his legs up on the counter. As he was about to delve into the magical world of Icha Icha, a woman approached his shop, her hands folded around her heavily pregnant belly.

"Kakashi-san!" Izumi beamed at him. "Good afternoon!"

"Ah, Izumi-san." Kakashi's feet returned to the floor, nearly sweeping off some old newspapers off the counter as he straightened in his seat. "How are you? Are you holding up well?"

Izumi gave him a lovely, but weary smile. "I'm doing fine, Kakashi-san. Well, as fine as I can be, anyway. I haven't been out in so long—since the baby's due in three months, Itachi's been swaddling me." She rolled her eyes. "I appreciate the effort, but it's wholly unnecessary. It's like he forgets that he trained me in his Amaterasu as well. And should that fail me, I always have the Uchiha Style to fall back on."

"Men," Kakashi said, clicking his tongue, earning a laugh from Izumi.

"How odd it sounds coming from you," she remarked. "Anyway, Kakashi-san, I'm enjoying the chat, but I actually came here for something. I heard from a friend that this is the best place to buy children's toys."

"Well, I'm not saying that it's the best, but it's the best."

Izumi grinned wryly. "Of course, Kakashi-san." She eyed the shelves behind him, which were fllled with all sorts of knick-knacks, including kites, lanterns, spinning tops, bouncy balls, and some of Deidara's clay sculptures. "Hmm... Anything you would recommend for a toddler?"

Kites were out of the question, obviously, until the unborn child was able to walk without falling over. But those clay sculptures of Deidara's were pretty cute, and there were a few without sharp edges. She had taken the liberty to paint them as well, and their beautiful colors were sure to brighten up a child's day. So Kakashi took a couple off the shelf and placed them on the counter, allowing Izumi to examine them herself. As she did, coming back to the tengu one more than once, Kakashi also added a spinning top and a red rubber ball to the mix.

Izumi seemed to be torn between the tengu and a fox, and Kakashi was about to recommend one or the other when a voice whispered into Izumi's ear, "I suggest taking both, un."

"Ah!" Izumi whipped around, and Deidara stepped back so that their heads wouldn't bash together. Immediately, she perked up, placing the sculptures back on the counter to grab Deidara's hands. "Deidara! Am I right or am I right when I say that you made those?"

"Hmm.. the latter, un."

Kakashi's eyebrows lifted into his hairline. So, I'm guessing that this is the 'friend' that recommended Izumi to come here? Makes sense, considering some of the cut for the clay figurines go to Deidara. I didn't even know that they were friends...

"The tengu is so cute!" Izumi gushed, holding up the figurine. "But so is the fox...!"

"Hey, you're rich and I'm not," Deidara reminded her, hooking one arm around her shoulders. "Take both so I can eat tonight, un."

"I concur," Kakashi added. "I am but a poor man in the face of the independently wealthy like you, Uchiha-sama..."

"Oh, stop it, both of you! If it makes you happy, I'll buy both. Also, the carving of the deer up there and the rubber ball, please." Izumi took her purse out and began to rummage through it for the appropriate amount of money.

"Great!" Kakashi clapped his hands together.

"Nice choice, un. Why don't you buy another one?"

"Good try, Deidara, but you might want to work on your persuasive skills a little more," Izumi chided as she handed Kakashi the money.

The blonde woman shrugged. "Worth a try. Wanna get lunch with me at Danna's?"

When Izumi had first heard Deidara refer to Sasori as 'Danna', she had automatically assumed the worse, only to be left blushing in embarrassment when Deidara hurriedly revealed that it was nothing like she was thinking. Apparently, Sasori found the term to be irritating, which fueled Deidara's insistence on calling him that. Sasori didn't really show much ire toward it anymore, however, and Deidara suspected that he'd just grown used to it. And so had she. Not calling him Danna was just plain weird now.

"Sure, I have time. Thanks for everything, Kakashi-san."

After bidding Kakashi goodbye, the two women made their way down to the martial arts district, where loud, enthusiastic kiais could be heard as the masters of each school located there drilled their students.

Rin was working at the dango shop today, and she waved at them as they walked past.

"Danna!" Deidara said cheerily as they strolled into Chiyo's Chicken Rice. "Got any seats?"

Sasori, who was bent over a table to place a cup of tea in front of an elderly woman, nodded, and Izumi could clearly see how familiar that they'd become with each other. "Back corner. I'll wipe it down for you. And you'd better not stick a dango you dropped on the floor under the table again."

A small blush appeared on her cheeks. "That was one time! And I was going to take it off, but I forgot..."

He snorted. "Just don't make a mess, brat." Sasori's gaze flickered to Izumi, and he dipped his head in polite greeting. "Izumi-san."

Izumi gave him a small wave. "Hi, Sasori-san. Umm, nice apron."

Deidara suppressed a snicker, and Sasori gave a long-suffering sigh. "Thank you, Izumi-san."

As the two sat down at their allocated table, they picked up bits and pieces of conversation going around the shop. Most of it was about the economy, and how good it was.

"Akatsuki's future looks bright," said a middle-aged man to his brother. "Did you hear that the Nohara-Uchiha family have expanded their business? Apparently, Itachi-sama is an investor. But that's just a rumor..."

"Really? That's pretty amazing," said his brother. "Any idea what they've done with it?"

"They're going to be making clothes instead of just fabrics and raw cotton."

"The Yamanakas have a hand in the thread-spinning business, too," a gossipy old woman said to her equally gossipy friend, their prune-y lips painted a bright red. "The heiress—Yamanaka Ino—is good with mending, and has entered into an apprenticeship under the head thread-spinner."

"Yamanaka Ino? But she's rich!"

"I know. But she hangs out with ruffians, like that Uzumaki boy."

"The one who ruined Hoshigaki-sama's name?"

"Yes, that one."

"How did that get out?" Izumi whispered to Deidara, frowning slightly. "Itachi didn't want anyone to know about his involvement. He likes to keep a low profile." She pursed her lips. "The only person I told was you and Rin. Perhaps someone overheard. I should really be more careful..."

"It's fine, un," Deidara reassured her. "It wouldn't hurt for Itachi to gain a little recognition for all the things he does. He's actually pretty involved in the community, un."

"Well, I guess not." Izumi patted her belly. "I hope nothing bad comes of it. We already have our hands full with the little one, and he hasn't even been born yet!"

"How do you know it's a he?"

"Gut instinct." Izumi winked at her. "You'll know the feeling when you enter pregnancy, Deidara."

The blonde woman shifted uncomfortably. "I'm not even sure if I want to have kids. Especially with how Rin described the childbirth part..."

Izumi gave her a sympathetic glance. "Oh, she gave me the same talk. I think she just takes joy in scaring her juniors because it asserts her status as a more experienced woman."

"Geez, she must have a lot of time on her hands, un."

Sasori appeared just then, putting all end to baby talk as he placed a plate of half a whole chicken, ginger and shallot, and two bowls of ginger rice down on the table, each thing attached to a chakra string.

"Aw, you know what I want," Deidara said with a smirk. "I didn't realize you thought of me that often, Danna."

Sasori raised an eyebrow. "You do realize that this is the only thing we serve besides tea, right?"

She waved a hand at him. "Same difference, un."

"That doesn't even make sense."

"Training ground behind Obito's house again?"

"Three o'clock," Sasori confirmed before leaving.

Izumi blinked slowly. "Okay... What was that?"

Deidara shrugged. "Ever since he beat me bloody in a fight, we've been using each other as sparring partners and measuring sticks almost every day. So far, he's ahead of me, but that's only because he's been doing this longer than me, un." Her eyes burned vehemently. "I nearly beat him last time! I didn't see him sit down for a week."

"I recall that you were avoiding chairs around the same time," Sasori said as he walked past with another plate of chicken for another customer, having overheard her.

"It wasn't fair only you to had to stand up, un." Deidara grinned, her teeth sharp. Then she turned back to Izumi. "After the kid's born, wanna spar? I've gotten better, you know."

Izumi sweatdropped. "I only won last time because Itachi spent hours training me in that move." But she brightened at the challenge. "But sure, why not? It's been a while that I've been able to train, let alone fight, so go easy on me, okay?"

"Like hell," Deidara said, leaning back into her chair. "If I did that, I doubt that there'd be much left of me."

"Hey, hey! Don't play your abilities down so much. My only advantage against you is my Amaterasu. My sharingan never activated, remember?"

As the two females kept each other company in the restaurant (and by extension, Sasori as well), a group of individuals dressed in unfamiliar fighting robes were ambling down the street. The symbols that they wore on the back of their clothing was foreign as well, but those well-read would be able to distinguish them as warriors from a northern country—Otogakure.

"Ehh," the only female in the group muttered, chewing on a senbon in her mouth. "So this is the heart of southern taijutsu? Doesn't look like much."

"Can it, Kin," the leader barked.

"Tsk. Sorry, Akado-sama."

The five martial artists were well known in Otogakure, Akado Yoroi being the confident leader and Tsurugi Misumi being his second-in-command. The remaining three were Tsuchi Kin, Abumi Zaku, and Kinuta Dosu. They were quite powerful in their own right—they had to be if they were being trained by the ruthless Yoroi.

"Hey." Yoroi tapped a passing man. "Do you know where we can find the martial arts district?"

"Huh? Oh, just go straight and turn left. You can't miss it—they're pretty loud."

"Right."

The man went on his way, and Zaku muttered something about "getting the friendly on with the locals" but shut up when Misumi sent a half-glance his way. The passerby had been correct when giving them directions, as they arrived at the martial arts district in no time at all. Trailing behind the five foreigners was a long-haired man wearing a large straw hat that shadowed his facial features.

In the Akatsuki town square, all four taijutsu masters with a school were training their pupils outside their respective dojos. Kisame had the least amount of people training thanks to the smear on his name; the other three—Obito, Hyuuga Hiashi, and Akimichi Choza—had an ample amount.

Striding confidently, Yoroi and his disciples (and Misumi) approached the nearest master—Hyuuga Hiashi. The man raised a perfectly arched brow when he noticed Yoroi.

"Can I help you?" Hiashi inquired.

"You teach martial arts here?" Yoroi demanded.

Hiashi, not appreciating the tone very much, pursed his lips. "Yes. Why, do you wish to learn?"

Yoroi smirked infuriatingly. "Who's the master?"

"I am."

Yoroi put his fist into his open hand, Hiashi reluctantly returning the gesture. "My name is Yoroi. I come here as Akatsuki is famous for its martial arts. I am a master of the Hidden Snake. I'd like to test our style against Akatsuki's martial artists."

Hiashi stepped back from him, a sneer on his face. "Practice?"

"Yes."

"Tch. Provocation, rather... Stand aside!" Hiashi whipped around to his pupils. "This a battle between masters. Come."

"Oh, it's not me you'll be fighting," Yoroi said casually, and the group of foreigners parted to allow a man with long hair and a large straw hat to pass. "Wouldn't it be better..."

The man removed his hat.

"... To fight the grandmaster of the Hidden Snake, Orochimaru-sama?" Yoroi finished, bowing to his own master, his disciples following suit.

People began to murmur, and Choza, who had gone to get a snack while his disciples practiced, pushed his way out of the gate of his dojo. "What's the matter?" he asked one of his students.

"Orochimaru-sama," Hiashi repeated with a grimace. "One of the famous Sannin, I see... No matter. I'll send you back to the north with your tail between your legs."

Orochimaru's chuckle was raspy. "We shall see, Hyuuga-sama..."

The two men stood apart from one another, Orochimaru with his arms crossed and Hiashi making a quick display of his prowess with the Gentle Fist before moving into his own stance. Orochimaru uncrossed his arms.

The wind blew dust across the square as the crowd watched with bated breath. In the chicken rice shop, Deidara and Izumi glanced outside, curious as to what was happening. Sasori stopped mid-way to his customer's table to watch as well.

The Hyuuga struck first, gracefully and silently with open palm strikes. But Orochimaru deflected them all effortlessly, and Hiashi was barely able to block the strong kick that went his way. Grimacing, Hiashi tried again, but Orochimaru fought harder and faster, and was able to parry each and every blow. Then he spun and kicked backward, his foot landing on the Hyuuga's sternum, and forcing him back. While Hiashi was down, Orochimaru took no chances—like a snake in the grass, he bit his prey (not in the literal sense). Everyone winced as Orochimaru kicked Hiashi across the face, sending him tumbling away. But Hiashi used his momentum to force himself up, just in time to block another one of Orochimaru's devastating kicks.

Normally, the civilians would be roused by a taijutsu battle.

But nobody seemed to be enjoying the mostly one-sided fight. Hiashi's ankle was compromised when Orochimaru planted his heel into it, and used his other leg to strike Hiashi up the chin, stretching his neck painfully.

The fight continued until Hiashi dragged Orochimaru to the dusty ground with him, and slapped his foot against the pale man's cheek. Hissing, Orochimaru turned his body in the dirt, using a leg to repeat the same move to Hiashi, only much harder.

There was a loud crack.

Hiashi's cheekbone had been fractured at the very least. He was slower to get up, and slower to hit, something that Orochimaru used to his advantage. He dodged all of Hiashi's open palm strikes, before sending a closed fist his way and punching Hiashi brutally across the face.

The Hyuuga patriarch flew backward with a snapping noise, falling harshly onto the ground, dust settling onto his clothes.

"Very good, Orochimaru-sama!" Yoroi praised like some kind of overzealous fanboy.

The crowd was silent. Nobody clapped for Orochimaru's win. They simply stared as Hiashi was helped up by his students. Ignoring the Hyuuga, Orochimaru set his sights on his next opponent, Akimichi Choza, completely oblivious to Obito's vengeful glare.

This man was a snake. He fought with no honor.

"Where do you think you're going?" Chiyo demanded when she caught Sasori trying to leave the shop. "I know there's excitement going on out there, but you mustn't interfere." She glanced at Deidara over Izumi's head. "That goes for you as well. This a matter of honor and pride."

"I know, un," Deidara ground out. "But..."

"You feel useless just sitting there," Chiyo acknowledged. "As do you, Sasori. Are you two going to challenge him?"

"No," Sasori answered for both of them, ignoring Deidara's outraged expression. "He's obviously considered the best of the north if he is a grandmaster." Sasori's eyes sharpened. "The best deserves the best, wouldn't you agree?"

Deidara narrowed her eyes. "What the hell are you up to?"

Izumi bit her lip. The best of the best? Does... does he mean...?

Chiyo seemed to catch on. "I see. I like it when you use your brain."

Sasori sniffed. "I always use my brain, baa-sama. If I didn't, I wouldn't be alive right now."

"You didn't use to," Chiyo said vaguely, shaking her head.

Deidara had caught on as well, but she wasn't a happy camper about it. She was still sore about the loss she had suffered at the hands of that supposed pacifist the other week. "Fine," she said begrudgingly. "But the only reason I'm letting this slide is because I want to see snake-boy's ass kicked, un. Very, very thoroughly."

Neither of them could do that, they knew. Hiashi was one of their best, yet Orochimaru had made the Hyuuga his plaything. Sasori and Deidara would only stand a chance if they faced him together, something that they weren't willing to do just yet for a number of reasons.

Outside, they could hear the flurry of more fists—the sound of Orochimaru engaging Choza in battle. The rotund man was far hardier than Hiashi, who focused more on precision and lethal or debilitating attacks, and the Akimichi taijutsu style was mostly centered around raw power and beating your enemy into submission with your fists. It lacked the discipline the Gentle Fist had, and while it was effective in its own way, it would not work against a grandmaster like Orochimaru, who had speed, agility, and sheer force on his side. The Hidden Snake was truly a formidable style.

From their position, Sasori, Izumi, Deidara, and Chiyo saw Choza slide across the cobblestone on his stomach painfully. Then he was still—knocked out by a blow to the temple.

Kisame had it no better—refusing to take out his Samehada for a simple spar was his downfall. Had the chakra-eater been present, he might have been victorious. But his defeat was more graceful than the others, simply standing up and brushing himself off to save face before limping back to his dojo. More slander on his name would do him no good.

Deidara's lip curled. "Obito's next, un. Can the Uchiha Style stand up to the Hidden Snake...?"

Sasori sat down next to her. All the customers were busy staring outside, just like them. "I doubt it. Obito may be a master... but the you can tell from the way he moves that the northerner is in a league of his own."

"Well, shit, un. I suspected as much..."

"You dare?" Obito was snarling in a rare display of anger. "Your taijutsu is unique and formidable... but there is no honor in the way you fight."

"Honor?" Orochimaru hissed. "And who are you to speak to me about honor, boy?" His tongue swiped over his lips. "Regardless... you're the south's last chance. Tsk, it seems like no one here can defend themselves, let alone fight..."

"You bastard!" Obito rushed at him, backed up by years of intensive training in the Uchiha Style.

The heats of all watching beat quickly as the two danced around each other, Orochimaru putting the Uchiha on the defensive.

"Hang in there, Obito-sama!" some were shouting. "We're depending on you!"

Obito fought bravely.

But it wasn't enough.

He went down with a blow to the head.

"OBITO!" Rin burst through the crowd as soon as the match was over, having not been allowed to interfere. She bared her teeth at the Sannin as she crouched over her husband. "You sick fuck. Get the hell out of my sight!"

Orochimaru clicked his tongue. "I can respect a wife's duties. Come." He turned his back on them and walked to Chiyo's Chicken Rice, his team trailing close behind him.

"How did you know he was coming here?" Izumi wondered, staring at Sasori. She'd been pondering how Sasori would get into contact with Orochimaru without leaving the store.

"He can't keep his eyes to himself," Sasori said shortly. "It was obvious. And from the state of their clothes, they've been travelling on the road for a while now. This is the only restaurant in the vicinity that's not a sweet shop. It's only natural that he would come here."

And he was right. Because ten minutes later, Orochimaru and his gang were all seated in the restaurant and gnawing on the bones of their chicken, their rice bowls empty.

"No one in Akatsuki knows any martial arts at all!" Zaku laughed obnoxiously.

"I thought everyone was supposed to be good," Yoroi added. "Turns out that they were all just bums."

"They can't even fight or defend themselves," Kin said, practically quoting Orochimaru. "Looks like we'll be raking in the money pretty soon..."

"Indeed," Orochimaru chuckled. "My martial arts club will be the most popular in the south."

Sasori scoffed as he picked up their empty plates and bowls, eyeing the leader. "You think you're so tough after beating a few nitwits?" Forgive me, Obito. "Wait till you beat the best, then you can talk." He turned to leave, but Orochimaru, who had narrowed his eyes, called after him.

"And just who is the best? You? Her perhaps?" The snake-man pointed his chopsticks toward Deidara, who was leaning against the wall with her arms crossed, Izumi standing awkwardly beside her with her pregnant belly.

"Oh, no," Sasori answered. "We're good. Better than your lackeys at any rate, and strong enough to kill you if time permits. But he's better. Better than all of us."

"Who is it?!" Yoroi snapped. "Tell us already."

Sasori smirked. "Why, Uchiha Itachi, of course." He left them gaping, and heard Orochimaru mutter, "Go."


 

"Anata!" Izumi burst through the doors, where her husband was sitting on the lounge with a cup of tea, unwinding after an afternoon of training. "There's a man—a grandmaster—who is coming over here right now to fight you." Her eyes flashed indignantly. "He has done nothing but insult us, including Obito. Anata... I know this is sudden, but you're Akatsuki's last chance."

Itachi listened to all this in silence, the only sound being the clinking of his cup against the table. "Who is he?"

"Orochimaru of the Sannin. From the north."

Itachi nodded, standing. "I see. Izumi—"

"I know." She took his hands and kissed him. "I'll be safe in the other room. Try not to break anything."

Izumi vacated the hall just in time. The front doors flew open and a huge crowd of people—mostly civilians who had come to watch the final showdown between south and north—led by a pale-skinned man with long hair streamed into his house.

His poor manners did not impress Itachi. One did not simply storm into a private estate without any warning.

He knew that Orochimaru and he would not get along the moment the snake pushed his servant out of the way.

"Itachi-sama," Orochimaru greeted eagerly, if not impatiently. "I have heard great things about you. You are a master in Amaterasu, a deviation of the Uchiha Style, correct? I am Orochimaru-sama, founder of the Hidden Snake."

Good lord, Itachi thought exasperatedly, his hand twitching as if he wished to strangle the other man for his insufferable monologue. It's like Kisame all over again. The key difference being that Kisame at least tried to be polite.

Orochimaru opened his mouth to speak again, but Itachi held up a hand.

"That's enough," he said. "From the looks of you bringing so many people with you, you're after a duel with me."

"Of course." Orochimaru saw no reason to deny truth from them anymore. "I intend to open a successful martial arts club. I've heard that you are the best, and it's only logical for me to test my prowess against you."

"Is that so?" Itachi raised an eyebrow calmly. "If you want to open a martial arts club... you have no need to fight me. Just find a good place to open."

"Don't be ridiculous." Orochimaru narrowed his eyes. 'You have every intention to fight me. I can see it in your eyes."

"Can you, now?"

They stared challengingly at one another, and the crowd began to clamour in anticipation, urging Itachi to fight and defend the southern martial arts. While the Uchiha liked to keep a relatively low profile compared to other taijutsu users like the masters of the four schools or the Big 4, his reputation as a formidable fighter was well-spread. None had ever seen him in action before, but they trusted the city gossip.

Itachi stepped aside. "Then by all means, come in. The rest of you, please stay outside."

Satisfied by his compliance, Orochimaru and his team strode inside after Itachi. Despite his clear instructions, the crowd followed as well, though most remained outside since there wasn't enough space for everyone.

"Out of the way!" A team of police officers, led by none other than Uchiha Sasuke, parted the crowd with their orders. "Move, move." The doors were wide open, allowing the officers easy access.

Sasuke wasted no time in approaching his brother, who was giving the crowd of people an uneasy stare.

"You morons," Sasuke seethed at the gathered people.

"I'm glad you're here, otouto," Itachi said, unruffled by the glare that Sasuke sent him. "Could you please escort these people out of my house? This room is too small."

Sasuke seemed miffed, but it was obvious that something bigger than the hostility he had toward his brother had reared its ugly head. Itachi had no doubt that his younger brother had heard of the crushing defeat each of the four school masters had faced at the hands of Orochimaru alone.

Hesitantly, Sasuke took a step forward and whispered in his brother's ear.

"Itachi," Sasuke said through gritted teeth, and for a second, Itachi heard a child version of his brother shouting for his aniki. "As much as I hate to say this... Make sure you win for our honor." He spun on his heel to face the people. "Everyone, out!" The combined force and authority of the police officers sent the crowd out the door, though they stayed gathered in the front yard. Sasuke was the last to leave, and he gave his brother a short, begrudging nod before closing the front doors, leaving a medium-sized crack for observation purposes.

Now, only Itachi, Orochimaru, and the rest of his group stood in the hall. Orochimaru's group lined up at the side of the room while Orochimaru and Itachi faced each other.

Orochimaru must have been itching for battle, because he jumped at Itachi instead of waiting for his opponent to attack first, like he normally did. He lashed out with his long arms, and Itachi caught his blows, even when Orochimaru went high and low in a demonstration of amazing flexibility.

Orochimaru was slowly but surely pushing Itachi backward, though the Uchiha had yet to do anything but defend himself, his face stoic as ever. Orochimaru did the high kick that had done major damage to Hyuuga Hiashi, only for Itachi to merely bend backwards like a drooping willow tree branch, totally avoiding the snake-man's leg.

Itachi parried more heavy strikes from Orochimaru, his eyes—onyx and not red with the sharingan—never leaving Orochimaru's face, even when the pale man lifted his leg to kick. Itachi lifted his own leg, stopping Orochimaru's kick with a loud crack that had the people on the sidelines wincing.

Orochimaru jumped backward, putting distance between himself and Itachi to regain his composure. He sunk into his stance once more, Itachi doing the same except with his Amaterasu stance.

Seconds had barely passed before Orochimaru went on the offensive again, spinning around in the air to give his punch more power. But it was parried once more, and Orochimaru hissed in frustration when the barrage of punches and kicks that he delivered next were all dodged or blocked.

After going in for a low, Orochimaru ended up on the ground, hut sprang back up with shocking speed, Itachi barely making it out of the way as Orochimaru's feet soared through the air...

And smashed the table that had an expensive China vase sitting on top of it.

Itachi frowned, showing feeling for the first time since the battle had started. "That was Ming."

Orochimaru stared at the smashed vase. Then at Itachi. "I'll pay!"

"Aa."

The battle resumed, going much like it did before, the only difference being that Itachi was now attempting to attack and succeeding half the time. Blood sprayed from Orochimaru's nose as his head snapped backward, courtesy of Itachi's powerful punch.

Baring his teeth, Orochimaru did an axle-leap into the air, cartwheeling. Itachi dodged just as Orochimaru's heel damaged Itachi's dinner table and sent the glassware toppling to the ground.

Scowling, Orochimaru promised, "I'll pay!"

Itachi rolled up his sleeves, folding them to keep them in place. "I can't let you break anymore things," he deadpanned. It was time to get doubly serious.

Orochimaru went for Itachi's legs again, but the Uchiha evaded his sweeping kicks. Then he lashed out, landing a harsh kick to Orochimaru's side. Orochimaru spun in the air again, but Itachi caught his heel this time and spun him around and around before releasing him, jumping up, and kicking the woozy snake-man away.

Orochimaru rolled once, then twice on the tiled flooring, his team rushing to where he stilled. But he quickly got up, shooing them away and glaring furiously at Itachi.

They rushed at each other once more, exchanging blows before Itach's forearm caught Orochimaru in the chest, making him fall. He halted his fall by landing on his hands and flipping upright again, but Itachi was on his case once more, and the snake-man's defence was hurried and clumsy.

Itachi's leg swished through the air in a motion that Yoroi couldn't even catch, and then Orochimaru was flying backward, half-landing painfully on the floor and a chair.

He did not get up.

His team was instantly by his side.

"Shit, boss!"

"Boss, you okay?"

"Get up, Orochimaru-sama!"

"I'm up!" snapped Orochimaru. "Now, Dosu..." He jumped into the air, and Dosu pulled the sword he carried out of his holster, throwing it into the air after Orochimaru.

The Sannin caught it, and slashed at Itachi with every intention of hacking him to bits. And he might have succeeded, had Itachi not been the grandmaster of Amaterasu. The Uchiha evaded the blade with a grace that came only from years and years of hard work and training.

The next time Orochimaru thrust his sword at Itachi, he grabbed his arm and swung him around, tossing him into the air. Orochimaru recovered, landing on his feet, the end of his sword hitting the ground with a metallic noise.

Itachi glanced to his left, where a brown feather duster sat in a vase. He grabbed it by the wooden end, dodging Orochimaru's sword just in time. Itachi flicked the feathery end of the duster into the Sannin's face, making him splutter from all the feathers that got stuck in his mouth.

Orochimaru spat out the feathers, infuriated by the indignity he had suffered. He thrust his blade at Itachi, who parried with the wooden end of the feather duster in such a manner that it wouldn't be cut in two. Mostly, he just avoided the sword, snapping the wooden end of the duster at Orochimaru's wrist every time he got near enough.

The Sannin swung his blade at Itachi's legs, but he jumped and landed safely, narrowing his eyes. Itachi's eyes flickered red momentarily, and he wagged the end of the feather duster as if he was scolding a naughty child.

Even more enraged, Orochimaru attacked with more energy than ever, slicing and slashing the places where Itachi had been, spinning and moving his feet expertly.

During the spin, Itachi managed to spank him three times with the feather duster, making the Sannin jump and hiss.

Yoroi coughed into his hand.

Having lost all sense of self after that, Orochimaru shrieked with rage and ran at Itachi with the sword held above his head.

Itachi stuck out his arm, the end of the feather duster digging into Orochimaru's armpit just in time to stop the sword from touching him.

Itachi thrust the duster, sending Orochimaru stumbling backward.

His disciples breathed heavily, unable to believe their eyes.

With a vengeance, Orochimaru lunged at Itachi again, slashing his sword, only for Itachi to slap his hand so hard with the feather duster that the pale man was forced to drop it. As it fell, Orochimaru nursing his hand, Itachi kicked the blade aside, and the sword rotates three times in the air before landing tip-first into the door.

Outside, Sasuke lurched backward, nearly falling over himself.

Once more wouldn't hurt, Itachi decided as he snapped the feather duster's wooden end against Orochimaru's rear end again, making his spine arch in agony. Orochimaru scrambled to turn around, only to be met with a feather duster digging into the skin of his throat.

A hideous snarl on his face, Orochimaru was forced to halt, breathing heavily.

"Are you still going to open that taijutsu club?" Itachi felt the need to ask as he cornered Orochimaru against the wall.

"What's the point?" The Sannin hissed at him. "My northern arts have lost to your southern ones. Do you not see the problem of that?"

"You're wrong. The problem isn't the origins of the art." Itachi's coal gaze bore deep into Orochimaru's soul. "It's you."

Slowly, Itachi moved back, letting his arms fall to his side, still gripping the feather duster. Gagging, Orochimaru massaged his threat.

Sasuke was curious as to what had happened when the doors suddenly opened, sending the crowd shuffling back to make way for those coming out. Orochimaru, looking wholly embarrassed and furious, led his team down the path the civilians had created for them.

"Who won?" someone asked.

"Obviously, Itachi did," Sasuke answered, sneering at the Sannin as he walked away. "Did you see the look on his face? It is obvious he lost."

At that point, honor and pride was restored, and the citizens began to shout, "Go home! Go back to the north and don't come back!"

Orochimaru didn't say a word as he left, nor did anyone from his team.


In the distance, Sasori and Deidara were warming up when they heard cheers coming from the mansion of Uchiha Itachi.

They exchanged a glance.

Nothing needed to be said. Deidara grinned widely at her sparring partner, feeling a renewed energy flowing through her veins. "Shall we?"

"Aa." Sasori emerged a puppet from his storage scroll, eyes gleaming. "I won't hold back."

"I'd be offended if you did, un."

They leaped at one another.


 

"Sasuke-shishou?" Daichi glanced up at Sasuke a week later. "You seem distracted today."

"Hm?" Sasuke spared him a glance. "It's nothing. Now prepare yourself. Don't wail if you draw blood."

In the near vicinity, Obito and Rin eye watching, pride shining in their eyes as they watched their son grow up.


Life went on as usual.

Until the war started.

Chapter Text

Not all wars started with a bang, Deidara came to realize when Akatsuki was on the verge of entering the cold season. Some wars crept up on you like the shadow of a cloud, but the consequences were just as ravaging.

And there was nothing beautiful about it—no, there was nothing beautiful about hell.

Damnation was not a burst of flames hot enough to melt your skin like wax. It came with fire at first, but it was followed by ice and murk, and controlled not by demons but by man.

On September 7th, the Second Tsuki-Ame War began, and Amegakure was invaded by enemy forces from Tsukigakure.

Akatsuki was overrun by Tsukigakure military forces. When met with resistance, the invaders slaughtered indiscriminately, and burned entire sections of the city to the ground. Those who tried to flee the city were immediately caught and killed on sight with bullets to the brain. If they were taijutsu users, they were hauled back and executed via firing squad.

The chakra-enhanced bullets were saved for the strongest.

Deidara had been sleeping when the city was overrun, and she'd awoken to the smell of burning smoke and death.

Her and Gai's apartment had been among the first buildings to be burned down. Gai had stayed over at Kakashi's that night, and it'd been up to Deidara to save the civilians.

She couldn't.

In fact, she barely saved her own skin.

It was hell on earth. Nobody knew where their friends and family had gone, and those who had been lucky enough to stick together through the burning and the shooting did their best to stay together.

Deidara was one of those nobodies.

And in the span of a month, Akatsuki's population had been reduced from 300,000 to just over 70,000, with only a few dozen factories in the whole city remained in operation.

The city burned and crumbled, much like Deidara's clay when it was left under the sun for too long.

 

Chapter Text

The woman's breath was ragged as she ran, bullets fired from behind narrowly missing her narrow, malnourished frame. There was already a bullet embedded in the soft flesh of her left shoulder, and it would do her no good to be wounded further. Saliva dribbled from her mouth as she panted, freezing in the chill before it hit the ground.

She let out a sob when a bullet grazed her leg, making her stumble. Boots clicked behind her—the soldiers were getting closer, and she was slowing from the wound in her calf.

But she had one advantage that they didn't have—she'd lived all her life in Akatsuki, while the invaders had spent less than a month getting themselves settled in. The woman took a detour, one that she was intimately familiar with. She pressed her back against the wall, tears staining her cheeks and her bladder threatening to loosen as the soldiers passed her, none the wiser.

"Dammit, where is she?!" the soldiers spoke a language that wasn't native to Amegakure, but the recently self-liberated female was sharp, and she'd spent her time in captivity picking up on the Tsukigakure people's tongue.

"I think she went this way. Hurry the hell up!"

"Right!"

Her legs shaking, the woman slid down the wall, making her spine—which visibly pressed against her pale skin and thin robes—ache. But it was nothing that she couldn't handle—the still-healing lashes running across her back were testimony of her torture.

"I'm so screwed," she sobbed quietly, wiping at her eyes and mouth with her dirty hands. "Goddammit...!"

Tears still streaming from her eyes, she tilted her head skyward to look at the grey sky before her. She had no sense of time left in her, though she suspected that it was nearly sunset. The skies had been perpetually grey since the invaders took hold of Akatsuki. Winters were always morose, but the cold season this time around was more sullen than usual.

There was no use in simply sitting there and waiting to be recaptured, she decided, and stood up on wobbly, too-thin legs. She made her way down the rest of the detour, limping thanks to the fresh, bleeding injury in her calf. Thank the gods that it hadn't started snowing yet—she didn't need to be sold out by her own trail of blood on the ice.

For the first time in three weeks, she was tasting fresh air. Her hair was once a beautiful blonde that was the envy of many of the city's women, but now...

She couldn't tell whether the majority of the dirt on her hands was already there to begin with or had come from passing her hands too many times through her hair in times of great stress.

I was cultured, she had thought bitterly. A true, fine lady. I had pride. Men twice my age were after my dowry. But my father is dead, and I have yet to see my sister again.

Her lip wobbled. What was pride in the face of what she had suffered? The indignities she had willingly put herself through just for a bite to eat. Nausea stirred in her gut, and she stopped to puke across the alleyway ground. There was hardly anything regurgitated—just mucus and water. She couldn't remember the last time she had eaten. She suspected that it was sometime last week.

The beautiful figure she had cultivated with dieting and exercise was ruined, but such trivial matters were the last thing on her mind. What she needed right now was safety and food.

A near-silent footfall reached her ears and she froze, pale blue eyes widened in fear. No, no, no! NO! She whipped her head around frantically to search for something sharp or heavy. There was nothing. Just the half-frozen puddle of vomit at her feet.

The footsteps came to a halt. Then a distinctly female voice called out gently into the night, "Ino? Is... is that you?"

Ino. Yes, that was her name. She'd almost forgotten. Had left it behind three weeks ago, in her father's glorious manor. The woman—no, teenager, felt something akin to electricity surge through her as she added her name to her identity again.

"Sa... Sakura?" Ino whispered, turning around to show the other woman the lines beneath her pale blue eyes.

The other woman pulled down the hood of her brown cloak, revealing black hair—black hair that was cut into the same hairstyle as Sakura's. She had brilliant green eyes, and a mouth that was used to being pursed thanks to all the insufferable martial artists she was used to healing.

Of course, Ino thought dazedly. She's Tsunade of the Sannin's apprentice. Her pink hair makes her too recognizable.

Sakura tentatively approached her, treating her like a scared animal. Her eyes were brimming with unshed tears. "Ino. Ino-pig, it's okay. I've got you now."

Ino stared at her, expressionless. Then, choking down a sob, she leaped into Sakura's arms, releasing that sob with a violent half-cough half-snort.

"Shh... Shh, Ino... I'm going to bring you somewhere safe. I promise. It's not too far from where we are now. I can't believe you came all the way here on your own... I'm so proud of you, Ino," Sakura whispered soothingly into her ear. "You've always been a fighter."


A blonde woman meandered down the street, her posture tense despite the vicinity being mostly empty. She was wearing all black, from her tunic and pants to her cloak. It wasn't a color she preferred over every other hue, for she claimed it made her feel like she was about to go to someone's funeral, but she was left with little choice.

All her other clothes besides the sleepwear she had worn that night had been burned along with her apartment when the Tsukigakure soldiers invaded. She had scrounged up this outfit with the meager savings that she had been able to take with her before her forced eviction.

Deidara lifted her cold hands to her mouth, expelling a breath of hot air. The lips on her palms were chapped and blue, preventing her from creating any clay. She kept her clay on her person at all times, and it had yet to run out.

It was used sparingly nowadays.

Compared to others, Deidara had relocated rather quickly, fleeing to the other side of the city, where the soldiers were less trigger-happy and more about serious marching and whatnot. She could tell apart the ones who gave their hearts to their duty and those who were corrupt—and being a woman in a district full of corrupt, armed soldiers was a death wish, so she'd turned tail as soon as she could.

She did not dare wander too close to the city's heart, where the Nohara-Uchiha cotton mill was located. At least, not on days like these, where it was foggy and she could barely see one-hundred feet in front of her nose.

Deidara was alone. Completely and utterly alone in the decrepit apartment she now lived in. She agreed with the self-suggested notion that she was going to lose her mind sooner or later, for all she could do all day was chop wood and toss them in her rickety furnace. It was either that or freezing to death.

Beneath her cloak, she hugged herself, shivering as the cold bit into her skin. Her attire was warm, but not warm enough for the wintry chill that had descended upon the once prosperous Akatsuki.

The folds of her cloak parted as she lifted her hands to her mouth once again to keep frostbite away.

Her belly growled—she'd been living on nothing but meager amounts of rations and rice for the past three weeks. Her food had run out yesterday, and there she forced herself to leave her new home in order to search for food.

Nothing was open. No restaurants, no shops.

Deidara gritted her teeth when her stomach complained again. She'd lost weight—not as much as others, but the weight loss was still there, and she briefly mourned the fit and powerful body she had traded for this shaking mess.

Sasori would have surely snarked her for it, for the deterioration of her body went against his view on art.

Sasori.

Deidara blinked, wiping dust from her right eye. I wonder how he's doing. Is he well? Or barely scraping through like me? Whatever it is, I hope he's surviving, un. Lost in her thoughts, she spluttered when she walked right into a rag hanging from one of the store signs. Stepping backward, she scowled immediately upon realizing just what it was.

A Tsukigakure flag.

As if the emblem of the Moon Country would summon soldiers, Deidara pulled the hood of her cloak forward, not liking how her field of vision was further narrowed. She raised her arm to the push the damned thing out of her way, continuing on her search for some kind of store, or perhaps someone to steal from.

Deidara circled the entire district in no time at all, and her belly remained empty. What I wouldn't do for some of Chiyo-baa's chicken rice... The thought of the mouthwatering, silky chicken did little to quell her hunger pangs, and only worked to sour her already sullen mood.

She returned to the flag hanging on the store sign by its metal pole. Feeling dirtier than she already was—her new apartment had no hot water, and since it was so cold, she refrained from bathing as much as she could to conserve body heat—she grabbed the flagpole and flooded her arms with chakra, yanking it out of its place.

It was surprisingly light, but the metalwork was of good quality. She felt no guilt when she smashed the end of the pole into a closed down store. Simply exploding it or punching it until it exploded would have attracted too much attention.

Not that smashing the hammered-up windows was subtle, either.

The wood gave way to glass, and the glass gave way to an empty space. Perfect.

Deidara wriggled through the window, careful not to cut herself on any stray shards. An infected wound was just about the last thing she needed right now. The shop was just as frigid as the weather outside, and Deidara rummaged through boxes of miscellaneous items before finally discovering some bags of rice in the very back of a shelf.

She left the store with two bags of rice over either shoulder, and her heart feeling lighter than it had been in days.

She had dropped off the rice at her apartment and was going back for more—what she wouldn't do right now to have Sasori's skill in chakra string manipulation—when a wailing reached her ears.

It was muffled, as if they didn't want to be heard.

Or were being prevented from being heard.

Nevertheless, someone had heard, and Deidara's natural curiosity reared its head. Her mind made up, she cautiously approached the noisemaker, her boots silent as she moved.

The fog cleared just enough for Deidara to catch sight of two Tsukigakure soldiers kicking a shivering form on the ground.

I should go, Deidara thought absently. I can't compromise my position for a stranger.

That would have been the logical thing to do, at any rate, but Deidara had been famed for her brazen and rash nature during her time as part of the Big 4.

Deidara glided toward them like a ghost in the wind, the winter breeze flapping her cloak around. In the fog, she looked like a shroud of vengeance. The soldiers would have certainly thought so had their backs not been faced toward her.

She disposed of them quickly and quietly. They were not dead, merely unconscious—it would be too dangerous if two soldiers in the Tsukigakure faction suddenly went missing in such a quiet place. The last thing Deidara needed was to be suspected to be a rogue taijutsu user and executed by firing squad.

Who would eat all the rice she had collected? The rats?

Deidara gazed impassively at the limp form curled on the ground before making sure that the two had massive bruises on their faces, courtesy of her fists. She had smelled the alcohol on their breaths the moment she neared them, and she knew that their superiors would not take kindly to them reappearing completely buzzed with their faces busted.

Alcohol was blamed for many things, and Deidara couldn't help but appreciate that, if only momentarily.

The person—child; no, girl—was still breathing, though the rise and fall of her chest was shallow. Her right cheek had boot-prints stamped on while her frail arms were beginning to bruise.

"Yare yare..." Deidara frowned at the girl, unable to make out her face thanks to the matted brown hair falling across her eyes and nose. "What a pain, un..." But I can't just leave her like this. So, cursing her soft heart, she picked up the girl and made her way home, the extra bags of rice forgotten for now.

She'd have to come back out later before curfew, especially since that she had an extra mouth to feed.

Sighing, Deidara looked heavenward, wondering when everything had gone so, so wrong.


The grey clouds stretched overhead in every part of the city—Deidara and Ino weren't the only ones who looked appealingly to the sky that day for some kind of sign.

Naruto didn't complain as he cranked the machine, spinning the cotton that the large metal bucket contained. The white fluff went up and down, up and down, like energy in a transversal wave.

Konohamaru, Moegi, and Udon were working in another part of the factory today, doing a job that put their small hands to use. When Udon went past Naruto to get a rag, the boy saw the black smudge on his face and concluded that his three kohais were doing some kind of repair on one of the other machines.

"You all can go home now!" their supervisor announced a few hours later, when the time was approaching eleven o'clock. "Excellent work, everyone."

Normally, such an announcement would excite Naruto, but that would only happen now if he had a proper place to sleep.

Konohamaru, Udon, and Moegi were in the same position. The apartments that the Nohara-Uchiha family had provided for their orphan workers free of charge had all been destroyed, or at least partly destroyed.

Their supervisor, Iruka, gave them a sympathetic look as he locked up for the night, a knowing look in his eye when the orphans remained behind.

"Make sure that you use the blankets over there," Iruka advised before the last non-orphan worker left and he had to lock up. "Goodnight, everyone. Keep warm and don't sleep near the equipment."

"Yes, Iruka-san," the orphans chorused. There was no returning to the orphanage for them—when they had left to work, the matron's parting words had ensured them that they would no longer have any place at the orphanage.

Iruka let out a deep sigh before smiling crookedly. "Goodnight, guys." Then the door slid shut and locked, leaving the children in total darkness, save for a sliver of moonlight from an open window.

There was a crack and a hiss, and Tenten's face appeared in the darkness, glowing orange from the match she held close. Someone pushed a short candle forward, stubby from many nights of use, and Tenten held the match near the wick of the candle until it finally caught fire.

The flame burned brightly in the dark, and the youngsters all huddled around it, sharing their body heat with one another.

"Tenten," an orphan wearing a green tunic said. His name was Rock Lee, and he hadn't much happiness in his life, being born without developed chakra coils. When he wasn't working, he was developing his own martial arts style, hoping to become as good as the Big 4 someday. He especially looked up to Gai, but they'd never exchanged a word to each other due to Lee's working times clashing with the hours Gai tended to show up during.

Nobody had seen Gai since the night of the attack. The same went for Kakashi.

"Yes, Lee?" Tenten whispered back, rolling her shoulder to get comfortable when a younger child clung onto her white-sleeved arm.

"It's very cold," Lee admitted to her, running a hand through his untamed, spiked hair. "Could you by any chance pass that blanket over there?"

Tenten nodded, eyes warm. "Of course, Lee. Here." She passed a brown blanket to him, which he then spread over his and Konohomaru's—the younger boy was sitting next to him—shoulders

"Anything happen today?" Moegi asked. "Any news on the outsiders and the war?"

She was talking to Naruto, who normally went outside during his break despite being advised not to. He was male, civilian enough, and young enough that the Tsukigakure soldiers paid him no heed.

"Nah, nothin'," Naruto said with the shake of his head. "But I'll be sure to let you know if something happens, dattebayo."

There were a total of seven orphans that worked in the factory. Tenten and Lee were the oldest, followed by Naruto, then Konohamaru and his friends, Moegi and Udon. The youngest was the little girl who was still attached to Tenten's arm, Chihiro. She was nine years old, while the rest were already in their double digits.

She was slowly nodding off, her head on Tenten's shoulder.

"I miss Daichi," Udon said suddenly, looking a little embarrassed. "He was kinda full of himself, but he wasn't bad or anything..."

"He was a good kid," Naruto agreed. "I wonder how he's doing?"

"Last time I heard, he was training in kenjutsu with the Chief of Police's son," Moegi put in, thoughtful.

"Hah? Sasuke-teme?!" Naruto shouted.

Tenten shushed him sharply, jerking her chin at the girl fast asleep on her shoulder. "Not so loud, you idiot."

"Sorry," Naruto muttered, having the grace to at least look a little ashamed. Kakashi's Thousand Years of Death had certainly humbled him.

They made idle chat after that, dropping off to sleep one by one, until Naruto was the only one still awake.

Naruto rolled to his side, careful not to jostle Udon, who he was sharing his blanket with. It was barely big enough for the both of them, but beggars couldn't be choosers.

The sound of gunshots outside did not bother his jaded ears.

Instead, it lulled him to sleep, his last thoughts for the night being his pondering on when he started hating the sight of the moon so much.


Deidara's fireplace burned brightly and hotly as the woman lay on her couch, sculpting the most random things. It was late at night that she got time to herself—the rest of the day she normally spent looking after herself and her home.

On her bed was the girl she had picked up. The girl's clothes—the remnants of a Once beautiful kimono—was drying on a chair near the fireplace, leaving the child naked underneath the woollen blanket, a rare item that Deidara had stole from another without them even knowing that it'd been her.

Her face was familiar, though Deidara couldn't put her finger on it. Perhaps when the girl woke up, she would speak of her identity.

Deidara was ready to fall asleep and wake up the next morning with a stiff neck when the girl stirred, groaning softly.

"Mrrghh... Onee-chan?" She blearily blinked sleep out of her eyes, sitting up with a wince. "Owww..."

"Oh, you're awake, un," Deidara spoke from the couch, causing the girl to startle and try to scramble out of the bed. "Hey, don't move around so much. I'm not going to hurt you."

The girl stared at her, wide-eyed and chest heaving. Then she blurted, "It's you! The lady who keeps making explosions...!"

"Hm?" Deidara lifted an eyebrow, her lips quirking upward in a soft smile. "So you've heard of me, un. Then you must know that I don't blow up little kids. Just annoying cats" un."

"I... dunno." Biting her lip, the girl lowered her gaze to stare at her hands, which were placed cupped on the blanket covering her legs. "What the?! Where are my clothes?!" Her voice was hoarse from disuse, but the shriek still got through.

Deidara used her thumb to gesture at the drying kimono. "Over here. You won't be wearing that anytime soon, unless you want to catch a cold."

"Don't you have anything else for me to wear?"

"Mm... My pyjamas, but I'm not sure if they'd fit you." Deidara shrugged, making a move for her miniature closet. "Then again, I'll bet that anything's better than naked with you. How old are you, anyway?"

"... Six."

"Tsk. I knew a kid that was still clinging to his mother's breast when he was six, un."

"Umm..."

"That was supposed to be funny," Deidara said as she tossed the girl her pyjamas. "At least laugh a little, un."

When it became clear that the girl wasn't going to lighten up anytime soon, Deidara stopped her poking fun. She'd probably been through a lot in the past three weeks, just like everyone else. And from what Deidara had observed, the child was used to being pampered and living a spoiled life.

It must have come as a shock to her, to have everything she took for granted ripped away from her all at once.

"What's your name kid?" Deidara eventually asked, handing her a warm cup of water.

"Hi... Hitomi."

"Holy shit. The Yamanaka?"

"Uh, yeah."

Deidara reached for her hair, finding the strands to be clumpy. "It's mud. Your entire head is muddy. You owe me a new pillow when this is all over, un."

"I didn't ask for you to bring me here!" Hitomi snapped, her eyes welling up with frustrated tears. She balled up her tiny fists, shaking. "I shouldn't be here! I want my onee-chan!"

Her annoyance was building up far too quickly than she would have liked, but Deidara quelled her irritation. "You'd be dead without me. A six-year-old spoiled brat isn't going to make it far out in the cold."

Hitomi was flabbergasted at Deidara's seemingly unflappable attitude. "I-I..."

"Go to sleep, you brat," Deidara ordered, pushing her back onto the bed. Great, now I sound like Danna. "And I'm washing your hair tomorrow, whether you like it or not, un. You're filthy."

"I must look so ugly," Hitomi sniffled as she laid her head on Deidara's pillow.

"No one here cares whether you're ugly or not," Deidara said frostily. "Just be grateful that you're still alive, un. What's appearances in the face of death?"

Despite everything, Hitomi's temper flared. "This is why okaa-san always says that you're never gonna get married!"

"Sleep before I throw something deadly and explosive at you."

With a squeak, Hitomi pulled the blanket over her head.

Wonderful. Now her blanket was going to be dirtied as well.

Rotten girl, that Yamanaka.


"Sakura!"

Shizune, Sakura's assistant, burst in as Sakura was disinfecting Ino's wounds with her bountiful medical supplies.

They were currently living in the city's underground, where there were abandoned buildings abound for the taking. The makeshift medical hut was where everyone that had fled to the Underground went to when they needed healing.

"Shizune, what's the matter?" Sakura demanded, standing up. "Ino-pig, I'm going to wrap that for you in a moment." In peaceful times, when she had chakra to spare, she would have used her chakra to knit Ino's flesh together. But now, Sakura had no such liberties with her chakra reserves.

"We've got a newcomer," Shizune informed her, her voice urgent. "And he's badly hurt. You must come right away. Itachi's with him now."

The Underground Faction, as somebody had dubbed it, was led by Uchiha Itachi, whose home had been seized in the attack and was now used as an army base. It wasn't the cleanest place, but everyone living down here had all did their best to make it more suitable for living. It was the safest place down here—not many knew that Akatsuki was built on top of an older city, and there was no way foreigners would ever know such a thing.

"Am I also a newcomer?" Ino asked hesitantly. "Billboard-brow?"

"Hell, yeah, and you're not going anywhere. We're safe down here, Ino."

"Are we really?"

"As safe as we can possibly get. I'll be right back—don't move!"

A large man was being held up by two shorter men, and Itachi was standing over him, examining his injuries.

"Hoshigaki-sama," Sakura gasped quietly. "I can't believe it..."

Kisame lifted his eyes, giving her a sharp, but crooked, pained grin. "Hey, girly. Are you just gonna stand here, or heal me?"

Itachi gave her a nod. "Sakura."

"On it, Itachi. Is Izumi okay? I haven't had the chance to check up on her this week."

"She is fine." Itachi sighed heavily. "I wish that our child won't have to be born during such difficult times. I wish that this war would end soon."

Kisame coughed, "Wishful thinking, Itachi-sama... I have a feeling that this war isn't stopping anytime soon... Kaguya's a ruthless bitch. And Pein won't back down to the likes of her, either."

Kisame had seemed so polite before, if not very strained. It seemed that it took a war and an invasion as well as losing half a gallon of blood to loosen his tongue.

"Careful," Kisame warned when Sakura got too close to Samehada.

"And what on earth is that?" Sakura asked brusquely.

"My crazy lover. Who else? Anyway, just don't get too close, for your own sake. She bites."

Sakura gave the wrapped sword a single glance before working her magic on Kisame's brutal injuries. It was cases like this that Sakura saved her chakra for. Just last week, she had been forced to amputate on the dirty sewer floor. It was only thanks to the healing properties of her chakra that the patient didn't die from infection or blood loss.

"Shizune, get the scalpel. He has a lump of metal in his arm."

"On it, Sakura."

Itachi frowned. "A bullet?"

"I do remember getting shot there," Kisame slurred, woozy from blood loss. "Dammit, Itachi, you're a genius..."

"His body healed over the bullet, most likely," Sakura explained. "I'll have to reopen the wound to remove the lump, or else it'll be infected."

"Geniuses, both of you."

"I can't tell whether he's being sarcastic or not," one of the men holding up Kisame whispered to the other.

"Me neither, Izumo."

As Itachi and Sakura worked with Kisame, Ino's mind was racing as she sat in the medical room, chewing on her lip until it was on the verge of bleeding.

Tears were streaming down her face, as she remembered what her captors had done to her.

She felt dirty.

"Ino?" A white-eyed girl stepped into the room.

Ino blinked slowly. "Ha... Hanabi-chan?"


Sasori glanced outside his window, watching soldiers march through the streets, enforcing curfew.

He rolled the blinds down.

 

Chapter Text

Hitomi's state was even more pathetic than Deidara had first thought when the girl got out of bed the next morning. It'd been nearing the evening when Deidara had found her—had been evening when Hitomi awoke and they exchanged some words.

Deidara hadn't had a good look at the girl until now, when the sun had risen behind the perpetually grey clouds.

There was a huge yellow bruise forming on the child's face, and her hair was ratty and clumpy with mud. She was stick-thin, even thinner than Deidara herself, and her legs looked like they could snap at any moment.

"Hungry?" Deidara offered her a bowl of rice when the girl approached her small dinner table, just big enough for three people.

Hitomi hesitated.

"I'm not going to bite you, un. How much do you want?"

"How much are you gonna give me?" Hitomi's voice was weak and watery.

A small irk mark appeared on Deidara's cheek when the girl answered her question with a question of her own. "I can't tell you that until you answer my question, idiot."

"I'm not an idiot!" Hitomi bleated, for her parents had praised her for being clever once.

"Then stop acting like one." Deidara frowned at the girl. "I have water boiling over the fire. You'll get some to drink soon. For now, get as much rice as you want from that black pot over there." She gestured with her thumb at said pot, which sat on the dusty kitchen counter.

"It's filthy here," Hitomi said, feeling the need to return to her aristocratic snark. Perhaps it brought her a sense of normalcy, so Deidara simply agreed for both of their sakes.

"Yeah. Yeah, it is, isn't it? But it's better than toughing it out on the street, un. At least there're less rats in here."

"Rats?" Hitomi looked horrified at the thought. "What rats?!"

Deidara raised an eyebrow, leaning back in her chair. She brushed her bangs away for a bit before answering, "Just where have you been living before I found you? You certainly weren't on the streets, un. You were caught, after all, something that someone living outside would have avoided. And you flinch at the thought of rodents. So where did you come from, Yamanaka?"

"I… I can't tell you that!" the girl replied stubbornly, crossing her arms before wincing. The movement must have jostled an injury beneath her clothes (which were the pyjamas that Deidara had lent her for the night).

"Yeah?"

"Yeah!"

A staring contest ensued, Deidara's china blue eyes boring into Hitomi's paler ones. Tnen the Yamanaka lowered her gaze, her lip set in a pout that eight-year-old boys might have found adorable.

But Deidara was not eight years old, nor was a she a boy.

"You'll tell me sooner or later," Deidara said, seemingly nonchalant about the fact that Hitomi was keeping information from her. If she was a spy for Tsukigakure, I doubt that would have knocked her around that much. And she seems… honest, somehow.

"I won't," Hitomi sniffed.

"We'll see, yeah."

Grudgingly, Hitomi sat down at the table with a small bowl of rice that she had gotten from the pot. She ate slowly, taking miniscule bites so that she wouldn't upset her stomach.

Deidara watched her from behind her own bowl. "Where's Ino? You were calling for her last night."

Hitomi startled, nearly dropping her bowl on the ground. As she recovered, she tried to set her banged up face into a glare. "I don't know."

Pieces started to come together in Deidara's mind. "Were you looking for her? Is that why you were outside?"

"N-none of your business, y-you…! You unmarried girl!"

Eyes narrowing, Deidara flicked a grain of half-hard rice at the girl's forehead, making her yelp. "Unless you want me to leave you to those dogs outside, then you'll keep your idiotic comments to yourself, un."

"Ow..." The girl sniffled, tears of frustration welling up in her eyes. "I hate you!"

Deidara nodded calmly. "Good. I wouldn't want to be liked by someone like you."

Huffing, Hitomi screeched her chair back and stormed into the bathroom, sliding the door closed behind her. Sighing, Deidara leaned back in her chair, passing her hand through her hair. From her experience entertaining Daichi and his little friends, she'd thought that she'd been good with kids. But Hitomi was a whole different story, the little brat.

"She can't be all that bad," Deidara mused to herself as she finished her rice and took the bowl to a damp corner in concrete room. As she washed the bowl with a hose that trickled out rain water—the same water she boiled to drink—she could hear a muffled sobbing coming from the bathroom, the Yamanaka girl likely crying out her frustrations in false solitude. She seems more concerned about Ino than herself. She stood, wiping her wet hands on her pants, and bringing the bowl to the kitchen counter to dry it with a rag.

There was a pile of wood on the other side of the room waiting to be chopped and burned, but Deidara thought that it could wait. The fire was still burning strongly, and would stay that way for perhaps another hour. So she removed the cloth draped over a training wooden dummy in a corner of the apartment space. As she fiddled with it, testing its durability, Hitomi slid the bathroom door open, her eyes puffy.

"Feel better?" Deidara asked without looking over her shoulder.

"No," Hitomi spat petulantly, crossing her arms and marching over to the couch to flop her body down, her eyes troubled.

"Un." Satisfied with the state of the training dummy, Deidara started to 'spar' with it, the thing spinning along with her chakra-less strikes. The training dummy was one that she had robbed from Obito's open training field during her escape to a safer part of the city. The Uchiha's house, like Itachi's, had been seized by the Tsukigakure military, though Deidara didn't know what they were using it for.

Silence reigned, the only thing piercing the quiet being Deidara's breathing and the clunk of the wood as it was abused by her arms and legs. The tunic she had was getting worn—she resolved to go out and get a new one tomorrow, and perhaps some clothes for Hitomi, too. The girl couldn't just stay in her pyjamas and her the torn kimono she'd been wearing the night Deidara had saved her.

"Why do you do that?"

Deidara paused, the wooden arm of the training dummy tapping gently against her wrist. She turned around.

"What's the point?" Hitomi went on, resting her chin on her arm. "Taijutsu... doesn't do anything against guns."

"Then what do you suggest I do?" Deidara replied, leaning against the dummy. "Paint my nails?"

"I—"

"You don't know what you're talking about. Taijutsu has saved my life more times than you can count." She returned to her training. "It's a valuable skill to have. Sure, there are guns—" Deidara smacked the arm of the dummy particularly hard. "—and other modern weapons, but your body can be an equally deadly weapon if you put time and effort into training it." The wooden arm flew at her face at a speed that Hitomi could hardly catch, but Deidara stopped it with one hand. "But that's not everything. Martial arts is about self-improvement, discipline, and respect." Deidara turned to Hitomi again, watching her still form on the green couch. "I'll admit that I don't always have all of those things at once. But I'm one in a million practitioners, un. I could be worse off." She paused. "I could have ended up like you."

She expected Hitomi to snap or screech at her. But when the little girl remained in a pensive silence, Deidara accepted her stillness, returning to her training with unwavering efficiency.

As she watched Deidara train, Hitomi sunk into the couch, her body frail and breakable, but a tiny place inside her heart starting to burn. Okaa-san always said that a lady's duty is to get married, love her husband, and have a lot of kids. Okaa-san would never approve of Deidara. But her mother wasn't here. Truly, Hitomi didn't even know if the woman still lived. Ino didn't wanna marry. Which was why okaa-san that if she didn't pick a suitable husband in one year, I'd be the heir. That's what happened to the Uchihas, after all.

Uchiha Itachi from the main house had married to a commoner, giving up his status as heir apparent for her. The only thing his wife had going for her was that she was an Uchiha, albeit an unimportant one.

Hitomi clenched her fists. I don't want to end up like that. All alone. Even if he seems so... Itachi's subtly-smiling face whenever he walked through town and greeted his friends and family was etched in her mind. ... Happy.

The next time Hitomi looked up from the hands was when Deidara was draping the cloth over her training equipment. The woman turned on her heel, arms folded. "Put on your kimono, we're going out for clothes and maybe food." There was no way she was leaving Hitomi by herself—there wasn't enough trust between them for that. "Try not to get in my way, un."

Hitomi harrumphed unhappily before doing as Deidara said, taking her sweet, sweet time if it meant making the older female annoyed.

"You're lucky I'm not like Danna," Deidara said frostily, having picked up on that Hitomi was doing.

"Danna?" Hitomi echoed.

But Deidara yielded no answers as she led them outside, pulling her cloak over her head.

"Do I get one, too?" the Yamanaka inquired, tugging Deidara's outer garment. "What if they attack me again?"

"They won't," Deidara said gravely, a horrible truth coming to her mind. "Not if they see you with a man."

Hitomi looked at the woman strangely as they ventured outside and went down the stone steps. "But you're not a—"

Deidara smirked. "Yeah, but they don't know that, do they?" The cloak was large and bulky enough to disguise her womanly figure, and Deidara's voice wasn't high to begin with. "As long as I grunt enough, and pull you around, you'll be safe."

Despite herself, Hitomi smiled a little. "Men do grunt a lot, don't they? Big brutes."

"They do, un." A few men that she knew came to Deidara's mind, and she frowned. "But not all of them are brutes. Some of them are... suspiciously effeminate." Her voice lowered. "Now hush." She felt Hitomi nod once. A small burst of happiness came over her when she remembered the time that a large man had come to Itachi's house with intent to court the Uchiha, unaware of the former heir's true gender. The dent Izumi had in her frying pan had never been fixed. Deidara suspected that the woman kept it there as some kind of trophy.

Deidara was glad that Hitomi had at least some awareness about the dangers of attracting too much attention outside. She stayed quiet the whole time, until they reached a clothing store in relatively good condition.

"Why didn't you ever get new clothes?" Hitomi inquired.

"Because I never had any need to. I don't like coming out unless I absolutely have to."

"Oh." That made sense to Hitomi. Back when she had still been staying with the others, before having given into the urge to wander out and search for Ino, they had hardly gone outside either. It was quite a gloomy place, though the nice lady that had been Ino's friend before the war broke out did her best to keep things lively.

The store had already been raided judging from the broken window, and Deidara glanced once, then twice, about their surroundings before leading Hitomi inside, lifting her finger to her lips in the universal hushing gesture when the child stepped noisily onto a shard of glass.

"I like this one," Hitomi told Deidara, pointed at a wrinkled pink kimono. "It's like the blue one I'm wearing, except prettier."

Deidara immediately scowled in disapproval. "No way. You'd stick out like a sore thumb. Pick something more inconspicuous, un."

"But it looks nice."

"If you want to be thrown on the ground and raped by a Tsukigakure bastard with a beer gut, then go ahead," Deidara snapped, huffily going through the store for something more appropriate.

Hitomi flinched at her tone. "Can't I just wear it at home, then? And what does 'ra-aped' mean?"

"No," Deidara responded to her first question curtly. "There's no way we'll be able to take that back with us without being noticed. The patrols circle the district in their vehicles every five minutes. They glanced at us the first time around. Imagine what they'd do if you gave them more reason to be noticed, un."

"But—"

"Enough," Deidara bit out. "Just shut up. I'm not carrying that."

As Deidara sifted through the clothes, shoulders tense, Hitomi grabbed the pink kimono and began to strip with a speed that came from changing into different outfits in small frames of time to meet different suitors more than twice her age. When Deidara turned back around, Hitomi had long finished putting on her original, ratty and torn blue kimono above the pink one.

If Deidara noticed, she didn't say anything, though she had an indiscernible gleam in her eye.

On their return journey, they ran into another vehicle, a mode of transportation not commonly seen before the invasion. Akatsuki, which had put great emphasis on ceramics, fabrics, and agriculture, had done all of their imports and exports by more primitive means. But vehicles had been on their way here, until the Second Tsuki-Ame War broke out.

"You know, you're filthy," Deidara said bluntly when they got back to her apartment. "And don't think I didn't see that. I might not have seen you change into it, but you're loud. And smug."

The triumphant smirk on Hitomi's face dropped. "Are you gonna take it back?"

"What would be the point in that? It'd be easier to throw it in the fire, un."

Hitomi's eyes widened as she protectively hugged her body. "No! Don't!"

Deidara snorted, rolling her eyes. "I'm not going to. I'm not that spiteful, kid. But I'm going to need you to take off all your clothes." The woman rolled up her sleeves. "Because you're getting a bath whether you like it or not."

Hitomi was nonchalant as she removed her clothing, tossing the kimonos on the couch. "Okay. My hair is super dirty, and I like baths, anyway."

"Oh, really?" Deidara inwardly smirked, though she kept her face passive. "Even cold ones?"

When Hitomi blanched, Deidara had to resist the urge to cackle in delight.


Half an hour later, Hitomi was blonde was more, squeaky clean, soaking wet, and naked and shivering in the secluded courtyard behind Deidara's apartment. She bared her teeth at the houseowner.

"I hate you!" she seethed, her tiny frame shaking.

Deidara, who was equally unimpressed with her wet fringe plastered onto her face, threw a towel at Hitomi, nearly bowling her over.

"Hate you, hate you!" Hitomi screeched, tossing the towel on the concrete in a temper.

Deidara glared at her. "Feeling's mutual, yeah."


There was a plip! as a drop of water fell onto a larger body, sending ripples outward. There was no natural light in the Underground, merely a few torches that had been smuggled in and lit. The entire system was too large to explore, the dangers of getting lost prominent. The 'small nation', as Sakura liked to jokingly refer to it as, was compacted into a small area of run-down buildings. There weren't as many people there as a nation would have, but there were still aplenty. Most were civilians who couldn't fight to save their lives and had no special skills, but there were those who were inherently useful.

Sakura was their go-to medic, and Shizune was her assistant as well as fellow medic. Both of them had apprenticed under Tsunade of the Sannin when they'd still been living in the north, but, somehow, Sakura had ended up being the more popular of the two. But Shizune held no grudge against her, and both were highly efficient healers, able to help with scratches as well as large-scale operations (though the latter was incredibly rare).

There were a few martial artists prowling around as well, including Itachi, Izumi, and Kisame, who had arrived last night and was still out of commission for now. There was no leader, but many looked to Itachi, who had been heir apparent and independently wealthy in his old life, for guidance.

And, finally, there was Hanabi.

The Hyuuga heir, who spent most of her time above ground looking after her father and dodging patrols.

The water continued to drip as Hanabi led Ino into the small hut she stayed in whenever she wasn't above ground. Ino glanced worriedly up at the ceiling, expecting the flimsy covering to collapse on them at any moment.

They hadn't talked much last night, just idle 'how are you's' that Ino didn't see the point of partaking in but had done so anyway, because she was a lady and ladies were not rude—

"What do you want?" Ino asked wearily, rubbing her head. "Hanabi-chan..."

"Ino-chan," the younger girl addressed, her back straight and her eyes solemn. "I spoke to Sakura last night, and—"

"About what?" Ino interrupted, clenching her new yukata. They were both kneeling across from each other, a wooden table being the only thing separating them.

"It wasn't much," Hanabi amended. "Just that you'd been through a lot and that I should leave you alone, but..." Her eyes grew sad. "I just wanted to know... Did you see Hinata?"

Ino was taken aback. "What?"

"Please!" Hanabi blurted, fisting her hands. "I need to know. I know you just got back from hell, but please don't... run away from me. My onee-chan—"

"I didn't see her!" Ino shouted, choking a sob down. "I didn't, I didn't!"

Hanabi, horrified at herself for making Ino cry, reached across the table for her. "I'm sorry—" She flinched back, blinking when a sharp pain went through her hand. Ino had slapped her hand away. She...

"Don't touch me," gasped Ino. "Oh my god, don't—" She backed away from Hanabi, curling up into a ball, unable to articulate properly. "Hah... Don't..."

"What," Hanabi whispered as Sakura, alerted to Ino's cries, burst into the room and tended to Ino. "Did they do to her...?" And do I... really understand her?


Obito sighed deeply as he cranked the metal that spun cotton. Not all of his staff knew it, but he and Rin were labouring away at their own cotton mill. He would be on the verge of bankruptcy in a few months; all his thread-spinners and new equipment had amounted to nothing in the end, and he chuckled mirthlessly as he imagined what he would do to pay Itachi and Sasori back. Probably with a lame apology.

They were getting no sales. The pay of his staff had been cut down significantly. At least half of them had gone, actually, because there was no food in the area to spend their pay on. Money were just useless lumps of metal to them now.

Chiyo's Chicken Rice had shut down a few days ago, as had many other restaurants. There simply wasn't enough to go around. Obito suspected that the wily old bat and her equally wily grandson had shut down their store in favor of hoarding food. Obito was just surprised that it had taken them this long to do so.

Perhaps they pitied the rest of the community.

But in the end, their own skins came first. Just as it should be.

"Obito." Rin, the purple markings on her face ever so bright, approached him through the chaos of cotton and workers, her eyes tired. "I found out where the missing money from the safe went." She gave him a crooked smile that didn't fully reach her eyes. "Hikari hid it under her bed to protect it from bandits."

"Oh." That was all Obito could say as he felt his heart soften in a twisty sort of way. "That's sweet of her."

"Yeah," Rin heaved a sigh. "It was a nice sentiment. Obito, I've been meaning to ask for a while... Just what happened to the Uchihas?"

Obito stiffened, stopping his cranking. "Rin..."

"Oh, no," Rin said sharply. "You're not getting out of this so easily. I let it slide last time because Daichi was in the room, but I'm an Uchiha, too, if only by marriage. They're my family, whether you like it or not."

Obito sighed, smiling tiredly. "Man, I such a strong-willed wife. All the women I know are so aggressive..."

"Stop stalling, Obito. I have to know."

"They were mostly left alone," Obito began reluctantly. "The police force has been dissolved. But some of them have been assimilated into the Tsukigakure forces."

Rin's eyes narrowed. "What? Who?"

"A few nobodies desperate for survival..." Obito closed his eyes, looking ten years older. "And Shisui and Sasuke."

"WHAT?!"

Rin's outburst earned them a few glances before the workers went back to minding their own business.

Over the shock, Rin lowered her voice, brow furrowed. "How could they? These people are our enemy. Are they really that desperate? Would they really throw their Uchiha pride away?"

"They would," Obito gravely confirmed. "Pride is a dominant force in the Uchiha family... but self-preservation is an even greater force, one that reigns over every human being. Why do you think that the crime rate has gone up so much, even without the police? We're all desperate to survive, Rin."

"I know," she said quietly, her voice spiritless. "I know, I know." She stepped back. "I'm going to check on Daichi..."

"If he asks about Sasuke, please don't tell him anything."

Rin frowned. "Obito—"

"Rin, please."

There was a pause.

Then Rin sighed. "Fine. But he's going to find out sooner or later."

"That bridge can be crossed in the future."

Little did they know, Naruto, hiding behind some machinery, had heard the whole thing about Sasuke. Clenching his fists, he stormed back to his station. Sasuke-teme... how could you abandon Akatsuki for them?!

"What's wrong, Naruto?" Tenten asked when she noticed his foul mood. "Were you finally banned from going outside?"

Oh, if only it was that simple.


"Chiyo-baa-sama, I'm off," Sasori said as he closed the door. "You know where."

"Tell me the news when you get back," Chiyo replied before the door fully closed. Sasori and Chiyo lived above their closed chicken rice restaurant, and the man had to descend a flight of stairs before finally reaching the tiny lobby. There was a criss-cross metal barrier which he had to unlock and separate so he could leave the building.

He walked the length of the central district before turning left to take a detour that not many knew about, as it was covered by broken wooden fencing and looked like the epitome of a dump.

Sasori was wearing a plain black cloak with a high collar, as it was too risky to be seen wearing an Akatsuki one. If one looked closely, they could see the remnants of red thread from where he had pulled out the string that formed the cloud patterning.

The detour led him to an open space that had a few high buildings surrounding it. There were a few drunkards lingering about.

Nothing special. The only building that had its lights on was a beer hall that had the Tsukigakure flag hung over the store's original sign. Sasori got a few sneers from half-dead civilians before he disappeared into the beer hall, the bright lights inside staining his eyes.

Ingenious, he couldn't help but think as he looked about the place, seeing Tsukigakure soldiers left and right. The hall was filled with raucous laughter and the clinking of beer glasses as off-duty soldiers squandered their time away. No one would ever suspect...

The beautiful barmaid behind the counter eyed him with her jade green gaze, her midnight bangs falling demurely over her face as a man burped while trying to flirt with her. There was another with her—an unassuming young with his long hair tied in a high, spiky ponytail. It reminded Sasori of a pineapple's brush. He was cleaning a glass, his gaze lazily flitting across to him, much like the black-haired woman's.

... that the most popular hub for enemy soldiers would be right above the Underground.

Sasori looked out the window. It was already well into the night.

"Alright," the woman—Sakura—said cheerfully, clapping her hands together. "It's been great having you boys here, but it's time to pack up! Don't you guys have work tomorrow?"

There were some collective groans, and Sasori noted that all of the soldiers seemed relatively young.

Nevertheless, scum was still scum.

There were calls and shouts of "she's right", "dammit", "Akatsuki girls are super hot" and "at least they know how to party" before they all filed out.

"Come again," Shikamaru called after them, sounding extremely tired but still very unassuming. Just another civilian labourer in the city and not a master strategist.

The bar's doors closed for the night when the last soldier was gone, and Sakura made sure to triple-lock every single door and window before she dropped her act.

A crease immediately formed in her brows. "I've been letting those dogs grope me since eleven in the morning with only a few breaks. Now are you coming or not?"

"I see your temper hasn't improved," Sasori remarked as Shikamaru opened up the doors to the cellar, where they kept all their alcohol.

"You're right about that," Shikamaru drawled. "Even when she's playing the whore, she's still as troublesome as ever..."

"I'm right here, you know," Sakura snapped, kicking him in the shins.

"Ow—shit! Troublesome woman!"

"Keep talking and I'll tell Izumi that you were the one who helped Choji break into the food stores!" Sakura said fiercely, jabbing a finger at his chest. "For a genius, you sure can be stupid sometimes!"

"It was one ration bar!" Shikamaru snapped back. "And he was still recovering from, you know, getting forcefully evicted from his own house!"

"Enough," Sasori said blandly upon reaching the bottom of the stairs. "We're here."

They walked behind an alcohol shelf, and moved a crate to the right, revealing the covering of a manhole.

"Ladies first," Sasori offered Sakura.

"Well, at least you've kept your manners during the war."

"Don't get too ahead of yourself," Sasori told her, borrowing a phrase from Shikamaru, "Women really are troublesome things."

"Ugh, chauvinists, the both of you."

"I don't try to see based on gender," Sasori said as they climbed down the ladder leading to the Underground. "I make my judgement based on skill and personality. It's only a shameful coincidence that nearly all the females I've ever met leave something to be desired for."

"Nearly's better than all, I guess," Sakura huffed. "So who do you put in the 'not-so-troublesome' category?"

"My grandmother."

"She's pretty scary," Shikamaru admitted, having met the woman once before. "I'm glad she and my mother have never met."

"Oh, hush you," said Sakura. "Is there anyone else, Sasori? Surely, there's got to be more than one woman."

"Sakura, if you're trying to hit on him, I don't think it's working," Shikamaru felt the need to advise her.

"I'm not! Geez!"

"There's..." Sasori trailed off, running a list of women he knew in his mind. "Izumi-san is alright. And Deidara makes a worthy opponent in battle. And her companionship isn't terrible." I haven't seen her since the invasion began. Her apartment was one of the first buildings to be burned down. His heart twisted at his next thought. She must be either dead or hiding out in another part of the city. Perhaps she was even lucky enough to escape, though I doubt it.

"I remember her," Sakura commented, her feet tapping on the ground as she landed safely. "Obito-san called me over to heal you and her. It must have been a brutal battle."

"Aa. It was."

"She normally came to the courtyard to entertain the kids," Shikamaru added, remembering how the young boys had been thoroughly impressed by her explosions. "I remember that Obito-sama's kid was one of them."

"How is he, by the way?" asked Sakura. "Obito, that is."

They were all walking toward the main camp now, their boots slapping against the wet floor.

"Doing as well as he can be," Sasori replied.

Shikamaru clicked his tongue. "That bad, huh? At least he's not living in the sewer."

Nara Shikamaru's home had been one of the many clan homes burned down during the first week of the invasion. His mother had passed away in the attack, while Shikaku and Shikamaru had managed to get away. Akimichi Choza had made a similar escape, but he and Choji, his son, had been separated during the frenzy. Choji had ended up with the Underground Faction, and everyone could only hope that Choza was okay as well. The man was a martial artist master, after all.

But Inoichi's family...

Shikamaru felt nausea settle in his gut as he thought of Ino, who had arrived last night. He hasn't spoken to her yet. Had been too scared to see what they'd done to her.

"We're here," Sakura eventually announced, lifting her arms up in a stretch before biting her lip in worry. "I'm going to go check on Ino. Shika, take Sasori-san to see Itachi."

At the mention of Ino, Shikamaru grimaced. "Right." He was surprised why Sakura hadn't pressed him to visit Ino yet, but he was also relieved. He'd have to face the music sooner or later, but...

Later sounded a whole lot better for present-Shikamaru, nevermind what future-Shikamaru thought.

"Sasori, come in," Itachi invited when he noticed Shikamaru and Sasori standing by the open doorway. His home was a dimly lit, simple stone building, complete with a table and some cushions he'd brought from his mansion.

"I never did ask," Sasori said, cocking a brow. "How do you get clean down here?"

"The bar upstairs has showers. We all take turns during the night."

"I see." Sasori pulled out a storage scroll, absently noting that Shikamaru had left them to talk. "Where is Izumi-san?"

There. Itachi's gaze had grown troubled. "She's in the medical building. She's due in two months, and she's been having a few aches and pains." His eyes dropped to the scroll Sasori was holding. "Are those..."

"Yeah." Sasori popped out some miscellaneous items from the storage scroll. "Pregnancy vitamins, poisons and antidotes, and home-made medicines."

Itachi managed a smile. "Thank you. You're a good friend, Sasori."

"We weren't friends before," Sasori said carefully. Business partners and acquaintances with shared interests, but never

"Then we are now," Itachi said simply.

Sasori offered him a nod, the frost in his eyes melting a bit. "I was hoping not to get too attached in times like these."

"Better to be too attached than to be not attached at all," Itachi advised. "Sometimes, I think you see yourself as one of the puppets you create, and not an actual human being. One that can experience the same emotions that I and everyone else do."

"Emotion?" Sasori closed his eyes. "I'm familiar with emotion. Especially..." He opened his brown eyes, his gaze sharp as flint. "Pride and cockiness."

"You're burning," Itachi said abruptly. "You're on fire but you don't know it."

"Burning?" Sasori frowned before his facial features relaxed. "Yes, I suppose I am." I'm on fire and I can't feel a thing... how poetic of you, Itachi. But I am not as much of a lifeless puppet as you seem to think I am.

Some raised voices came from the outside and Itachi stood, giving Sasori a glance. "Get someone to escort you back up. Hanabi-chan knows the lock configuration. Perhaps you can ask her. The next time you come around, Sasori... please tell me everything you know about Sasuke. No one else has been able to get close to central."

Sasori, who was halfway out the door, paused. "You might not hear what you want to hear."

"Is he dead?"

"No."

"Then tell me. But not now." Itachi swept past him, red and black Akatsuki cloak flowing behind him in a majestic display. "Until next time, my friend."

"Until next time," Sasori promised, and the man who was on fire parted ways with Uchiha Itachi.


Hitomi woke up early in the morning to go to the bathroom. As she was returning to bed (Deidara's bed; the woman was sleeping on the couch), a sight made her pause. The sun was beginning to rise behind the clothes, and there was a single crepuscular ray shining upon the covered training dummy in the corner of the apartment.

Hesitating, Hitomi changed course and, her feet nigh silent against the cold concrete ground, she approached the training dummy, pulling the sheet off.

It was taller than her, and stood majestically in the room, its wooden arms appearing sleek but used. Hitomi stared at it a little while longer, not daring to touch it lest she be hurt or wake Deidara up. Then she shook her head and, standing on her toes, tossed the cloth over it again before going back to bed.

Unbeknownst to her, Deidara had woken up the moment Hitomi flushed the toilet. While she remained draped over her couch like a lazy jungle cat, her piercing blue eyes had been watching her the whole time.

 

Chapter Text

"Sasuke-sama! I swear I'm going to beat you one day!" Daichi panted, grinning as he pointed his training sword at Sasuke, who was balancing his katana across his shoulders, his posture as relaxed as an Uchiha's could be. Daichi was almost a carbon copy of Obito, though his hair was less spiky and his jawline was pointier, much like his mother's. His hair reminded Sasuke of Shisui's hair, though his bangs weren't held up by an Akatsuki forehead protector. They fell across his face in random spikes, and Sasuke figured that the boy would have to get his hair cut soon.

"Big talk for a small brat," Sasuke said, shifting his weight to his right foot. "You've barely been training with me for a month."

"I train every night!" Daichi declared, lowering his sword so that the tip touched the ground. His breathing was slowly evening out; they'd just stopped an intense sparring session. "I'm going to become the best kenjutsu user in Akatsuki."

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "To impress the Yamanaka girl, I suppose..."

"Hitomi? Well..." Daichi scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "I mean, that'd be nice and all, but what I really want to do is protect my family."

Sasuke considered this, and Daichi continued.

"Especially Hikari. She's my imouto, and a big brother should always protect his imouto."

Something flashed in Sasuke's eyes. "Should they?"

Daichi nodded. "Of course! I love her more than anything in the world. I'd be pretty useless if I couldn't protect her, y'know."

There was a brief silence before Sasuke had his sword out in front of him again. "Enough talk. Come at me."

"Ready or not, Sasuke-sama!"


"Are you ready or not, Sasuke?"

Sasuke blinked, inwardly shaking himself out of his daydream. He shifted his gaze upward to meet Shisui's concerned eyes.

"The Uchiha Squad is waiting outside," Shisui informed him, cringing at the name. "Not to diss the General's creativity, but..."

The two Uchiha shared a room in the secondary military base that was once Obito's house. When the General had seized it and Itachi's mansion, he had decided to put Obito's training field and multiple training rooms to use. The Tsukigakure soldiers were not necessarily martial artists, but the General was, as were a select few.

In what was once Obito's vast lounge room, there stood three Uchiha-blooded soldiers, their backs straight and waiting tensely for Shisui and Sasuke to come out so that they could begin their duties for the day.

"Sir!" They saluted in unison when Sasuke entered the room, Shisui following closely behind.

Their patrol took them down the usual routes, where complete and utter strangers glared at them. Had they been regular Tsukigakure soldiers, the civilians would have most likely put their heads down and went on with their day.

But they were Uchiha.

Akatsuki's very own Uchiha.

The betrayal ran deep for the citizens, and while Sasuke struggled to maintain his impassive demeanor on his worst days, Shisui was outright smiling as they patrolled. There were no lines of guilt on the older Uchiha's face, and Sasuke had to wonder why. There was a little bit of sadness in his gaze, but no guilt.

Noon rolled around quickly, and Sasuke soon found himself in Obito's lounge again, having a brief recess with his squadmates.

If he were to be honest with himself, up until they became his subordinates, Sasuke hadn't bothered to ever know and remember their names. They were an all-male squad as far as he knew—there was one Uchiha that refused to take off their mask. It was to the point where Sasuke actually started to wonder if they slept with it on. But for the sake of making things easier for himself and the others, the masked Uchiha was referred to with a male pronoun. They—he—never complained, so everything worked out.

Their names were Uchiha Yano, Uchiha Ashikaga, and Uchiha Kagami.

Sasuke's hand tightened around his cup of hot water. How convenient that the masked one would possess a unisex name.

The door opened and an officer strode in. "The General wishes to see you, Sasuke-sama," the man said, keeping his eyes fixed on the Uchiha in question. When Sasuke didn't place his cup on the table immediately, he added, "Now."

And that was how Sasuke found himself in the audience of the General, with his wild black mane and his unforgiving eyes. He was tall—possibly taller than Sasuke would ever be, and he always radiated some kind of crushing, dominating aura.

But those things weren't too important.

No—to Sasuke, the most important thing was—

Sasuke bowed low. "Madara-sama."

General Madara was an Uchiha.


A week had passed since Deidara had rescued Hitomi from the streets, and the young girl was currently scrubbing the black pot that Deidara used to cook rice. The woman herself was training in the corner. They'd decided last week that if Hitomi were to stay here, she would have to at least try to earn her keep. Her duties in their shared home were mostly just folding laundry and washing dishes. Deidara couldn't trust her with chopping the wood, tending to the fire, or cooking. And it was fine with Hitomi, because in her spoiled life, she had never done such a thing.

"This won't come off," Hitomi muttered as she scrubbed at a brown stain on the side of a rice bowl. "Grr...!" She abandoned the bowl and left the tap running to search in the cupboards for something useful. The cupboards were mostly bare, but there were still three medium-sized bags of rice left, which was greatly comforting for the girl. As she returned to her washing duty, Deidara left her post to tend to the fire, tossing extra logs into the orange flames.

The fire burned with the same shade of orange that the Uzumaki orphan liked to wear. It was an obnoxious color, but in dark days like this, the hue was somewhat comforting.

Deidara rubbed at her visible eye with the back of her wrist when it got irritated by jumping embers. After making sure that the fire was okay to keep on crackling, a few embers landing on the cold stone floor, Deidara retreated to the bathroom.

The bathroom was small room, with only a simple squatting toilet and a rickety sink and smudged mirror. She'd never gotten around to cleaning the mirror, so, after washing her hands, she used her wet palms to wipe away the dirt on the glass.

She couldn't help but frown at her reflection.

Her once pristine golden hair was much duller than it had been, as if the misery lingering in the air had decided to suck out the bright color to keep it company. There were bags starting to form underneath her eyes, and, with a brief annoyance, she realized that those hadn't started to form before Hitomi took over the only bed in the apartment.

Damn, she thought, splashing water on her face, her bang tucked behind her air. I look like shit. If only Danna could see me now; he'd never let me hear the end of how human bodies are so fragile.

She exited the bathroom, spared Hitomi a quick glance, and returned to her training dummy. There was a window nearby that was constantly shut as to not let the cold air in, but there were no curtains available to be drawn over it.

Akatsuki was well known for its agricultural produce and ceramics, and Deidara could see the remnants of a potato farm in the distance. The family that owned it had passed away some weeks ago, and the crops had been raided for its produce.

Deidara clicked her tongue at the displaced dirt. What a waste... She struck the dummy in front of her with her forearm. It's just empty land now. Though I bet I could still find a few potatoes there if I really tried.

"I'm done!" Hitomi announced, putting the rice bowls on the kitchen counter, ready to be used again. "I dried them just like you taught me how to..."

"That's good," Deidara said halfheartedly.

"What do I do now?" Hitomi bounced over to the couch and flopped onto it.

Deidara paused, then shrugged. "Dunno. Remember that book we found in the trashcan last week? Go read that, un."

Hitomi wrinkled her nose. "But I've read it five times already. Can I read the other book instead?"

The 'other book' that Hitomi was referring to was a book that had been discovered in the same trashcan as the children's book that Hitomi thought boring. Deidara had only nine pages so far; she'd restrained herself to one page per day so the story could last until the war ended and everything could start reverting back to normal.

"No," Deidara said, holding up the palm of her hand and sticking her hand-mouth's tongue out.

"Eh?! Why not?! Huh?!"

"Because I'm reading it, un. Besides, it's not a kiddy book. I'm not even sure if you can recognize such complicated characters yet. Now go read your stupid book... or go out to the back courtyard and chase butterflies or something. You like butterflies, right?"

"Ino-nee did," Hitomi said miserably. "Not me. I liked moths better."

Deidara stared at her. Then she joined Hitomi on the couch, nudging her legs aside to make space. "Moths? Why moths?" Now that she was closer to the girl, she could see that the misery had sucked away her color as well. From a distance, Hitomi would have looked like an unpainted scarecrow, or doll if she was wearing her kimono.

Hesitating, Hitomi picked up a piece of red string from the couch and began to fiddle with it. "Well, you know..."

The string was from her Akatsuki cloak, Deidara realized. She had been forced to remove the red cloud patterns from her cloak the night she escaped her burning apartment. The Tsukigakure soldiers, being the bastards they were, would have attacked her for patriotism or some shit like that. It left minuscule holes in the garment, but it could have been worse.

"Moths are beautiful," Hitomi confessed. "And furry. I like furry things." She scowled. "Except rats. I hate rats."

It was times like this that Deidara found herself to be reminded that Hitomi was only six. "You and me both. Rats... are ugly things, un. They thrive during times like this."

"Why? Everybody else is hungry."

"Which is why I think it's disgusting." Deidara wrinkled her nose at the thought of the ravaged potato farm.

"Oh."

"Yeah, oh."

They fell into a silence, and Deidara was about to get back up and start training again when Hitomi blurted, "What's the story like so far?"

"Hm?"

"The story you were reading!" Hitomi impatiently clarified. "Even though you're only, like, a few pages in, something has to have happened, right?"

Deidara sat back down. "Un." Well, it wouldn't hurt to tell her. Better to tell her now than have her nag me all day about it. "The story starts with the protagonist waking up in a hospital."

"Eh? Pro-tago-nist?"

"The main character."

"Oh."

Deidara settled into the couch a bit more, and Hitomi instinctively pressed up against her more, listening intently.

"She just came from a war," Deidara continued. "A war like the one that's happening right now."

"What's the war about?" Hitomi pressed. "Why are they fighting?"

Deidara snorted. "Who knows? Humans fight for the most idiotic things, un."

"You mean like you?"

"Keep talking and you won't hear the rest," Deidara said haughtily.

"Okay, okay! Geez..." Hitomi pouted before fixing her attention on Deidara's story again.

Deidara recounted the events of the story as far as she got up to Hitomi for the next fifteen minutes, both females comfortable enough with each other's presence to sink their bodies into the couch.

"... and that's all I got up to," Deidara finished.

"No way! It was just getting exciting! How is she gonna live like a normal person? Since the war's over."

"If I knew, I'd tell you."

"Can't you read faster?" Hitomi pleaded.

"Nope. It's my book and I'll read it however fast I want to read it."

"Ugh, you're a jerk."

"Shut up, brat. Why don't you tell me a story instead, if you're so great."

Hitomi huffed. "I don't have any stories..."

Deidara huffed right back at her, narrowing her eyes. "Then don't complain to me about this."

"But...!" Knowing that she had lost, Hitomi's pout returned and, with a harrumph, she turned her nose up at Deidara. Rolling her eyes, Deidara simply knocked the back of her knuckles against the girl's head, making her wince.

"Talk to me later when you have a story to tell," Deidara told her before removing herself from the couch and returning back to her training post. I doubt that she'll have much to tell. She sighed through her nose, adjusting the wooden arms of her training dummy. Then she held her hands behind her back and attacked the post with her legs, leaning backward, forward, and to the side to avoid the uppermost row of arms that spun along with the bottom ones.

When one arm slapped her cheek, she hissed, and resisted the urge to angrily headbutt the thing.

"Why don't you use your hands?"

Deidara inwardly groaned. The brat really can't keep her mouth shut for five minutes, can she? But she couldn't really be blamed, seeing as she was still a child and children were biologically wired to be egocentric. This one's a little too egocentric, yeah. Because, you see, when two big egos shared a small apartment, a little irritation here and there was bound to happen. She forced down a blush that was threatening to appear on her cheeks. Of course she had to see me get bitch-slapped by a dummy.

"Well?" Hitomi prompted, either oblivious to Deidara's souring expression or simply uncaring. Her cheek is going red...

"I need to train my legs as well," Deidara explained to her as simply as she could. "I can't focus on just my upper body all the time."

"But I see you use your legs as well as your arms," Hitomi pointed out, and Deidara's eyes sharpened ever so slightly.

She's observant, at least. Not a bad quality to have. "That's true, but I'm still too reliant on my arms. I'm supposed to be training my entire body, not just one half of it."

Hitomi looked like she had some sort of semblance of understanding. "Oh, okay. Still, I wouldn't wanna get slapped by wood. Doesn't it hurt?"

Deidara returned to attacking the pole with her legs. "No," she said sarcastically, her patience wearing thin from the girl's questions. "No, Hitomi, it feels like a gentle caress. Of course it hurts!"

"Geez, sorry! You're so grumpy! No wonder you're never gonna get married!"

"I told you to drop the marriage thing! I bet I could get plenty of guys if I wanted to!" By now, Deidara had long given up on training properly. It was a little strange for her to be having an argument with a child, but she couldn't let those blows to her feminine pride go unchecked.

"Nuh uh! You don't look after your face enough. And your hair's always greasy."

"I rarely wash it for good reason, un," Deidara snapped. "I'm not foolish enough to let the water sit in my hair and give me a temperature." She was tempted to add a snide "like you have room to talk", but decided against it. She wasn't going to stoop that low just to win an argument against a goddamn six-year-old. She's right about my face, though. I'll start passing for a living corpse, soon. Like the rest of her body, her face had narrowed remarkably, any hint of baby fat now lost to living in poverty and oppression.

"So what? No guy would wanna marry you because you're always blowing things up," Hitomi shot back, changing her argument.

"If they can't appreciate my art, then that's their problem. It's part of who I am and I'll be damned if I let them walk all over me, un."

Hitomi opened her mouth to retort before closing it again, considering Deidara's response.

The blonde woman raised an eyebrow at her deliberation. "What?"

"Nothing... just that..." Hitomi lifted her chin. "You're just like onee-chan. Okaa-san always told her to be more ladylike to suit her appearance, but..."

"Ah." Deidara leaned against the wall, her arms folded across her chest. "I remember that she always hung out with that Uzumaki brat." She noted Hitomi's decidedly displeased look. "Don't like street rats, do you?"

"Of course not!"

"Well, neither of us have much business disliking him for just that..." Suddenly, the ribs jutting against her skin felt more pronounced than ever, and her hipbones felt uncomfortably sharp. And judging from Hitomi's distinctly uncomfortable demeanor, she was feeling the same way. "Anyway—" Time for a subject change; no use in making ourselves feel worse, un. "Your sister had the right idea."

"The right idea?" Hitomi echoed, unsure.

"Yeah," Deidara affirmed. "She stayed true to herself."

"Oh. But she had other friends, too." Better friends, Hitomi added silently, knowing that Deidara would probably snark her if she made the remark out loud. "Like that Billboard-brow that she hangs out with."

"Right," Deidara said dryly. Billboard-brow? Really? What an unorthodox friendship they must have, un. Then again, she wasn't really one to judge, considering her (former) interaction circle had consisted of multiple Uchiha, a green-clad, enthusiastic taijutsu user, village kids, and a puppet-obsessed man who worked at a chicken rice shop that was run by his grandmother.

It came quickly, but it was overwhelming nonetheless.

The nostalgia felt like a kunai to the gut—sharp and stinging. It continued to throb as Hitomi droned on about Ino's other friends ("... Shikamaru, and there was the fatty..."), and Deidara's heart twisted as she realized for the first time that her once-thriving interaction circle now consisted of a child, a training dummy, and skulking rats. How she wished she could feel the summer breeze on her face again as she and the other members of the Big 4 had a battle royale, as the smoke from the clay that she had exploded made her eyes water—

"Are you okay?" Hitomi asked, breaking Deidara out of her thoughts.

"Hm? Yeah..." Deidara blinked, her lashes damp. "I just hate being stuck here." There's nothing to do except wait. The city's on lock-downno one who isn't Tsukigakure gets in or out without getting a bullet through the head.

"... Me too. I miss Ino-nee. Umm..." Hitomi frowned. "Do you miss anyone?"

"Yeah." Deidara pushed herself off the wall and grabbed a wooden arm that belonged to her training dummy, adjusting its position. "Yeah, I do."

Hitomi didn't bother her for a while after that.


Daichi hadn't been outside his room for a while. The practice sword that Sasuke had given him on their first day of training hung proudly on the wall—the grandest display among mediocre things.

Daichi hadn't seen Sasuke since the invasion started, and it'd been over a month—nearing two—since then. Even now, as he headed downstairs to use the bathroom in their second home—the one above the dango shop—thoughts of his mentor plagued his mind.

Sasuke-sama... what happened to you? Where did you go? Are you fighting in the war? The last thought caused dread to fill his heart, and he tried to chase it away by arguing that it simply wasn't logically for a non-military man to be on the front-lines. Not to mention that there was no way Tsukigakure would have allowed him to leave the premises of the city.

There was a rustling noise when Daichi left the toilet, and he paused. Then he went over to the kitchen, where the sound had originated from. He peered around the doorway, his breath hitching when he saw his mother crouching over what was the remaining rice they had in a black pot. It was very meager—the amount wouldn't even begin to feed Hikari.

Rin seemed to realize, too. She dug further into her cupboard and pulled out a few potatoes in a jar. Boiled potatoes were what most people were eating nowadays. They could be grown using human feces, so it was a go-to food for people lacking the usual resources for growing crops.

His mother was a smart woman—she probably had a small patch of potatoes growing behind the store.

What Daichi didn't know was that the small meal of rice and water he had had last night would probably be his last meal containing rice for a long time. Rice was rare nowadays. As the Tsukigakure occupation continued, food had grown incredibly scarce, even for former successful business owners like Obito and Rin. Money meant nothing—no one would give up their food for worthless lumps of metal. A few of the workers at the cotton mill had stopped coming to work despite their previous claims of staying.

They'd been looking extremely thin and weary during their last days at work, and no one had any doubt of what had become of them.

Daichi retreated further down the corridor when he heard a footfall, hiding in the bathroom and peering out ever so slightly. He recognized the footsteps—it was his father, but Daichi didn't want his mother to know that he knew of the food shortage in their household. He didn't particularly feel like being swaddled, told that everything would be okay when it clearly wasn't, and sent off to his room like a naughty child.

"Rin?" Obito called, disappearing into the kitchen. That was when Daichi, quiet as a mouse, crept out of the bathroom and pressed his back against the wall, listening intently.

In the kitchen, Obito had noticed the little amount of rice that they had left. He frowned, lines carved into his face from worry and stress—lines that hadn't been there before. "There really is none left..."

Rin nodded grimly. "All we have now are potatoes, but the garden is small. And they're not finished growing yet." She held up a potato. "This was the biggest one I could find."

Sighing warily, Obito accepted her words with a defeated air. We really have fallen on hard times. If this keeps going, we're only going to wait ourselves to death. Sasori had come to see him a few days ago, with news from Itachi.

The Underground Faction were experiencing the brunt of the famine, the stolen supplies they used to sustain themselves not able to provide for everyone. More than half of their population had already starved to death, and Sakura had nearly gotten shot after being caught after curfew smuggling medicine and dried noodles out of a store. The beer hall that was located above the Underground's entrance was still thriving as there was no shortage of supply on alcohol, but pretty much everything else was thinning out—including the people.

Obito was almost beside himself with righteous anger when the fact that Akatsuki once had a thriving population of 300,000 people came to him. He clenched his fists, eyebrows furrowed.

"Obito." Rin stood and clasped his shoulder, looking him in the eye. The silent plead was there: Please don't do anything rash.

"How pathetic do I have to be," Obito ground out, his hands shaking. "That I can't even provide for my own family."

"It isn't your fault, dammit!" Rin snapped, her own hand trembling as she clutched Obito's shoulder tighter before pulling him into a forceful embrace. "It isn't your fault..."

"Stop, Rin."

"It isn't your fault!" she repeated vehemently, her eyes burning as she drew away from her husband. "Don't you dare pin the blame on yourself. This is a situation that neither you or I can control. But we can survive."

How? The desperate, searching question hung in the air for so long that even Daichi could hear it from his position on the other side of the kitchen wall.

Eventually, Obito calmed down enough to reason, "Whoever's running the place isn't stupid enough to let the whole population die out, despite everything. They'll do something about it, I'll bet."

And sure enough, they did.


Sasori grunted in annoyance as he burned his hand on the handle of the pot. Muttering curses, he pressed the burned area to his side for a moment before reaching for what he had been reaching for again—a ladle.

Chiyo entered just as Sasori was about to emerge from the kitchen with two boiled potatoes on a plate.

"Baa-sama?" Sasori said, his tone questioning.

"Have you heard Madara's announcement? He's the Tsukigakure General that runs Akatsuki."

"Announcement? What announcement?" Sasori placed the plate of potatoes in the middle of their small, round dining table, the hem of Chiyo's dress swaying back and forth as she bustled after him, taking out a piece of brown paper from her apron pocket.

"Read it," his grandmother urged. "And tell me what you intend to do with this information."

Is this announcement truly that important? he wondered as he took the calligraphy-covered paper from Chiyo, who was looking unusually grave but somewhat excited at the same time. When he read it, Sasori could see why.

Defeat a taijutsu master and win one bag of rice to feed your family at the Nohara-Uchiha grounds, the paper read, the sentences curt and concise. Straight to the point. Normally, Sasori hated beating around the bush, and would have appreciated such a thing, but he despised how... cold and clinical it'd come out. There was no doubt in his mind—this message was clearly directed to those Madara considered sub-human, which was all of the Akatsuki's remaining population.

The paper crumpled a little under Sasori's grip.

"We're running out of food," Chiyo stated bluntly, a perpetual frown on her face. "Keeping a low profile and disregarding your title of Akasuna no Sasori means nothing now, my grandson. What will you do next?"

Sasori met her stare evenly. "I'll do what needs to be done. Nothing more, nothing less." He turned the paper around, finding nothing useful. Then he crumpled it and tossed it into a dusty trashcan. "But first..." He tapped the table, gesturing to the potatoes and giving his grandmother an expecting glance. "Itadakimasu." You wily old bat, he added silently.

Chiyo snorted. "There's no getting past you, is there?"


Madara had an adviser that Sasuke hated with a burning passion. His name was Mizuki and his only purpose was to fawn over Madara on his bad days as far as Sasuke was concerned.

Wherever Madara went, Mizuki followed behind him like some kind of twisted puppy. The only comfort that Sasuke had was that it was highly likely that Madara found Mizuki to be as much of a nuisance as Sasuke did. But Mizuki's father was apparently some kind of high-ranking official in Tsukigakure, which was probably why the General even bothered to keep him around.

Today, Sasuke was forced to stand next to Mizuki—who was sandwiched between him and Madara—and watch the hapless citizens of Akatsuki file in through the door to challenge Tsukigakure taijutsu masters for a reward. They were standing on the upper level of the room, and looking down at the ring.

The reward was one bag of rice.

For some, it was worth risking life and limb to provide for their families.

Most were just desperate to survive, and seeing the desperation in their eyes made something in Sasuke's stomach coil. Most of them were civilians with no battle experience, he quickly realized.

What happened to them next was brutal, and Sasuke refused to watch, staring at the opposite balcony instead. Footsteps reached his ears, and officers took their places behind the three of them, eager to watch civilians—whose only crime was their futile hope—being beaten to near death by master martial artists.

A civilian shouted at them in the Amegakure dialect that only Sasuke could understand.

"Translate," Madara instructed, and Sasuke did so instantaneously.

"He called us dogs, Madara-sama," Sasuke translated, wondering if this man was suicidal.

Madara's lips curled upward in a cruel smile. "Then his only hope is to win."

Sasuke did not dare ask what the consequences would be if the man lost. But he soon found out when, inevitably, the man suffered the hands of defeat. He was going to get up and go home like the rest of the few men that had gotten away still able-bodied when there was a crack of thunder, and a hole opened up in the man's head as a bullet passed through his brain.

Sasuke stiffened at the noise, which had originated from Mizuki. Mizuki, who had pulled his gun out somewhere during the fight, was smiling contently, smoke coming out from the muzzle of his gun.

The thud of the man's body was sickening, and Sasuke's stomach lurched again. They killed him. They actually killed him. His eyes were wide with shock as the body was dragged away by a lower-ranking officer, and the next contestant was called up. They wouldn't have if he hadn't called us dogs. If Sasuke hadn't translated the man's words.

Sasuke had seen death before. It was inevitable now that they were living in times of war. But what he had seen were people whose souls had long departed. Sasuke had never seen a man killed right in front of his eyes before.

He'd boasted of his skill as a swordsman to Daichi and others who'd been willing to listen, but he had never put his training into practice before. Had never had to.

Sasuke was trembling. No. This is a mistake.

His mother appeared in his mind, mouthing the words, SurviveShe'd died in his father's arms from injuries she had received while out in the market, and Fugaku had cradled her body all night.

This isn't survival.

Sasuke could have sworn that cold water splashed on his back. Survival wasn't supposed to be like this.

When Madara had stormed the Uchiha compound asking for people to join his army, Sasuke had been the first to volunteer, still grieving for his mother. She'd told him to survive, and he would best flourish on the winning side.

People weren't supposed to die like that.

Are you a fool? Sasuke argued with himself, clenching his clammy hands. You knew what you were getting into when you joined. This has been happening all around you the whole time. One man doesn't make a difference. He felt like barking out in hysterical, mirthless laughter, and would have had Madara not been there. I am heir. I cannot break. Itachi forsook me with a clan.

In front of Sasuke was a massacre.

And there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.

But there was light—one, small crepuscular ray—when the first winner appeared and claimed his prize.

Sasori, Sasuke immediately recognized. The puppeteer fought with his arms and legs today, and defeated the taijutsu master he was facing with relative ease. He seemed as malnourished as the rest of the civilians, but there was a hint of color on his cheeks from the fighting, and his face was still looking as timeless as usual.

Mizuki blinked, disappointed.

"Give him the rice," Madara commanded, and someone tossed the bag of rice at Sasori's feet. Sasori hooked one foot underneath the bag and kicked it upward, catching it with one hand without spilling any of the precious grain. The man's brown eyes never left Sasuke's face before he took the rice and went.

The darkness returned again, and the massacre resumed after that.

 

Chapter Text

"Shh..." Sakura hushed as she placed a damp cloth over the woman's burning forehead to try and further bring down her fever. "You'll be fine in no time. For now, please rest."

"T-thank you..." The woman's eyes closed, and her breathing evened out as she fell into sleep.

"Just doing my duty," Sakura murmured, even though she knew the civilian lady was already asleep and had no chance of hearing her. She pulled three thin blankets over her, until everything except for her nose and above were covered.

The Underground's makeshift medical center was not impressive, to say the least, but they had to make do with what they had. Sakura could hear shuffling and an irritated groaning coming from the other side of the small hut. It was where Kisame was currently recovering, and the area had been curtained off.

Sakura pushed past the curtains. "Hey, big guy. I don't think you should be moving around too much." She crossed her arms. "If you don't do what I say, you'll be in a world of further hurt."

Kisame, who was sitting up and seemingly trying to touch his toes, stiffened before shooting her a sharp grin. "What kind of medic threatens her patients? With that kind of bedside manner, I'm starting to doubt whether you're qualified or not."

"When you've trained under Tsunade of the Sannin, proper bedside manner is just one of the many things that go unaccounted for. I don't mean to toot my own horn, but if Shizune and I weren't here, you'd be dead." She shrugged. "Such is life."

"Adorable," Kisame said in a tone that indicated he clearly meant otherwise. There were dark circles under his eyes; he had not rested well for the past few weeks thanks to the combined pain of his injuries. Sakura had administered pain killers, but refused to give him doses that wouldn't allow him to become virtually numb.

She hadn't looked in a mirror for a while, but Sakura strongly suspected that she didn't look too spiffing either. After checking on Kisame's health, she stepped back from his bed with an approving nod. "You're healing up nicely," she said in a clipped tone, going back to her medic mode. "I bet that you'll be up and about in a few days."

"Then why does it hurt so much? My back."

"Because I had to cut it open multiple times to retrieve shards of glass embedded in your flesh," Sakura replied without even a blink. "Speaking of, your body has amazing healing properties—far beyond the average human's. You're in good shape for your age thanks to your taijutsu training. That's got to be a factor, but it still doesn't explain why you healed most of your superficial wounds so quickly."

Kisame shifted in his bed, gingerly lying back and clasping his hands over his stomach. "Clan thing," he said shortly, obviously not willing away to give away whatever secret that was behind his fast healing.

Sakura nodded, knowing how people could be protective of clan secrets. The Sharingan was one such example—no one but the Uchiha knew a lick about it. But the general assumption was that it copied movements and seared them into one's memory. The Hyuuga's Byakugan was also an anomaly that no one except a Hyuuga could replicate; the eye gave the user the ability to see through surfaces. To make sure that chaos would not erupt, there was a ban placed on the Hyuuga's Byakugan, stating that the dojutsu could not be used outside of combat. It went for the Sharingan as well, but considering the police force had been made up of mostly Uchihas...

But this was no time for secrets. Sooner or later, Sakura vowed, she would find out the secret behind Kisame's healing factor. She left Kisame to rest and exited the medical hut, looking around her surroundings. The place was mostly empty, with most hiding out in abandoned buildings.

The Underground's population had experienced a great decline thanks to the shortage of food. Lack of water was of no concern for now as it rained regularly, but they were slowly being drained of their rations. Right now, there were only about twenty people left that were living in the Underground City. After a successive chain of deaths—mostly civilians unused to hunger and sickness (but then again, weren't they all?)—many had chosen to up and leave. It was their decision—no one had stopped them. Sakura, Itachi, and Shikamaru had guided them through the beer hall and let them outside.

Sakura's shoulders drooped as she dropped the front she put on in front of her patients, the life seemingly sucked out of her. I feel dead on my feet. A nap is seriously in order... She lifted her head to eye the building that she knew Ino stayed in. She visited the blonde girl every day, and Ino was slowly, slowly getting better. They'd been good friends before the war, and a stone of guilt and hopelessness had formed in the pinkette's belly with each passing day. But Ino hadn't inquired as far as she knew, and the subject of Hitomi had simply never come up.

Yamanaka Hitomi. Five years old. Blonde. Female. And had memorized the lock combination of the beer hall, gone outside to search for her sister, and had never come back.

There were the sound of voices when Sakura was about to retire to her room for the night. Shikamaru and Choji were returning from their shift at the beer hall, and carrying a few bottles of alcohol. They noticed her immediately, and went straight to her.

Shikamaru held out a bottle as some kind of offering, his brow raised.

It was tempting, Sakura had to admit. But I'll end up staying up all night and be even deader in the morning. She shook her head. "Thanks, but no thanks."

"It's no fun if only two of us are drowning our sorrows," Shikamaru remarked casually, his arm and the bottle dropping to his side. "Choji's a sad drunk."

"Hey," Choji objected. "Last time you said I was chatty. Make up your mind, why don't you?"

"Too troublesome..." There was this look in Shikamaru's eyes that made Sakura fear for his health. His will had brought him this far, but even that was slowly crumbling.

Because of Ino, Sakura realized, that guilt returning again. Shikamaru often visited Ino with her, and tried to ease the long-haired girl into opening up more. Sometimes it worked, other times the presence of a male was too off-putting.

"I'm sorry," Ino had said meekly last time. Ino had never been meek before that. She'd been outspoken and fierce, and—and—

"On second thoughts," Sakura said, "I think I'll join you in drowning those sorrows."

Shikamaru handed her the bottle. "Wise choice."

Hardly, Sakura thought as they retreated somewhere else. Then again, when have I ever made wise decisions? Sasuke's face flashed through her mind. Now's not the time. Just open the bottle already.


The sun was not yet up when Deidara's eyes snapped open. She lifted her head off the arm of the couch, her neck cricking uncomfortably. She looked around the room, seeing nothing but darkness, and swept her legs off the cushions.

Dammit, she hissed inwardly when she stubbed her toe on something. The woman continued to fumble her way through the dark, trying not to wake Hitomi, who was undoubtedly still asleep in Deidara's bed.

The last clothing raid they had done—when Hitomi had picked up her pink kimono—had ensured that both of them had adequate sleepwear and outdoor clothing. The tiny courtyard behind the apartment was often frequented now that Hitomi was around, leading to dirtier clothes.

Deidara tied her hair differently this time, pulling back all of her locks in a bun, including her famed canary's wing fringe. Hair curled around her ears, but that was of no concern. I think the dinner table's over here. She reached out, feeling smooth wood. Yeah, okay. That means the door... She moved to the right, one hand outstretched in front of her. Her fingers and hand-mouth found the door, and she exited the room to meet a cold outdoors. Her apartment was on the uppermost floor, meaning that she had to walk down a flight of stone steps.

It was a little less dark outside, as the very top of the sun was starting to peek over the hills, whitening the clouds that shaded it. Deidara's stomach grumbled—a grave reminder of what she was about to do with an empty stomach.

She walked through the streets without her hood, her posture slightly slouched in the perfect depiction of a worn and weary civilian man. She was glad that it was dark, as her left eye was particularly sensitive to light, hence why she kept her hair the way she normally did.

If she made it quick, she'd be back before the afternoon.

Deidara pulled out a brown piece of paper from the sleeve of her solid black Akatsuki cloak. Obito's house... that's miles away from here. But she was hungry and there was a young mouth to be fed, so she'd have to suck it up and deal with it. I'm not sure how much one bag of rice is, but... A quick assumption and some simple math calculations told her that one bag would be enough for about three weeks between her and Hitomi. The girl was already malnourished enough as she was—she needed to be fed more than she was currently eating. This is such a pain. I really wish I'd left her to those soldiers, un. She certainly meant it now, but she knew she'd not mean it in the future. The girl had rubbed off on her, and Deidara was paying the price for her soft heart.

As she journeyed to Obito's mansion—now a Tsukigakure stronghold if the flyer was any indication—she recited the story that she'd busied herself with over the past week. She was nearly halfway done with the book that had come from the bin; despite trying to limit herself to one page per day, that cursed curiosity had taken over her.

The sun had almost fully risen when she saw Obito's house in the distance. Deidara quickened her pace, and a growling vehicle containing about ten Tsukigakure soldiers drove past her without even a glance. Deidara grimaced. Those machines... those were going to be ours if they'd never come. Obito was boasting about getting one. Good thing they didn't notice me...

She was just another hungry civilian, after all.

Ten minutes later, however, another patrol approached her. And this time, they were foot soldiers. Deidara halted this time, feeling cold water splash onto her back when one of them called out to her.

"Where're you going so early in the morning? Curfew ended not long ago."

Deidara turned to see two dark-haired men—one of them was wearing a mask—staring back at her.

"Maa, leave him alone," said the one with the mask, turning to the other one. His voice was slightly distorted. "He's probably just trying to earn food for his family, just like the rest of them."

"Hn." The man—the Uchiha—without the mask harrumphed and turned away. "Fine. Let's keep going, Kagami. Sasuke-taichou is expecting us soon."

Sasuke. Taichou. Deidara gave them a stiff nod as they passed. I can't believe this. That brat would really turn on his own? And for what? Survival? Well, if that were the case, he couldn't certainly be blamed, especially when there were clearly other Uchiha that were on the other side of the coin as well. Regardless, if the people knew, morale would stoop even lower than it already is. Do they? Sasuke had been an emblem of justice for the majority of the community, despite being a teenager still trying to find his place in the world.

Her chakra rolled off her in waves of anger and disbelief, and a few clay spiders dropped out of her sleeve and crawled into an abandoned building. Screw this. I'll be out of here before they know it. Katsu!

Deidara's cloak whipped behind her as the building exploded with a loud boom! and flames burst into the air. She'd obviously exploded something flammable. Her piercing blue eyes, large against her gaunt visage, practically glowed with a new vengeance as the fire reached its peak height. That pitiful excuse of a police officer was supposed to be Daichi's mentor—his role model. She'd never had any illusions about him like the boy, but she'd never taken him for such a coward. What had happened to that famed Uchiha pride?

The answer came to her a heartbeat later, and her rage died down almost as fast as it came. Pride, Deidara thought numbly as she neared the former Uchiha premises. What a worthless thing it is now. She wasn't the only one there—there were perhaps two other prospective challengers that lived in the nearby vicinity that had come for a battle. Something like pride...

They were escorted to the indoor arena by Tsukigakure soldiers.

... Will only get you killed. Deidara's heart wrenched with an indescribable feeling as she thought of the building she'd blown up just minutes ago. It had crumbled under her might, weak from lack of care and maintenance. Just like everything else; we're all crumbling to dust here.

The Tsukigakure martial artist that another was fighting before her bowed to him in a show of respect. The man was too tired to replicate such a display.

It was over too quickly, really. He left bloodied and bruised and without supper. From the way his clothes hung on his thin frame, Deidara had the suspicion that he would not be making it through the night, especially with injuries of that caliber.

"Next," the proctor on the upper floor droned out, and Deidara tilted her head backward to see the bored face of a white-haired officer with a bandanna wrapped around his head. Their eyes met, and the officer scowled. "That means you, pal. Go on; don't be shy. You're getting a free meal out of this."

Fucker, Deidara absently thought as she stepped onto the ring, her opponent bowing to her. It was the same taijutsu user that had fought against the civilian man from before.

She slid into a stance. "Please." Her voice rang out, rich and deep.

"Please," her opponent uttered in return. His own stance was one that was utterly unfamiliar to Deidara, but if she was anything, it was versatile. She was both predator and prey, and that meant learning how to adapt.

Their arms met, and the larger man attempted to jab her through her defense. Deidara's bones shuddered but the blood in her veins was roaring, and she smacked the his cheek with the palm of her hand.

He stumbled backward, obviously surprised at the amount of strength she was hiding beneath that cloak. The Tsukigakure man rolled his shoulders, and charged again, this time more careful with his movements. Unfortunately for him, his mass was not directly proportional with his speed, and to Deidara, he might as well have been a turtle. She jumped and skipped backward to dodge his punches and kicks before leaping up into the air and striking him in the neck with her foot.

The man was out like a light, and Deidara landed gently on the tatami mats, her cloak billowing out for a moment before settling around her thin form. She glanced upward at the proctor, eyes narrowed. "My reward," she wanted to say, but the man had a gun and she had a brain that she did not want blown out. So Deidara kept her silence, and, eventually, someone tossed a bag of rice at her feet. She picked it up, and a pang of disappointment hit her when she realized just how light the bag was. Forget three weeks, she mourned, this won't even last two.

The soldiers escorted her outside before leaving her somewhere with nary a nod or blink. Grunting, Deidara straightened and began the long walk home, the sack of rice slapping against her thigh as she moved.

She was nearly home when a shouting caught her attention. Wearily, she lifted her head, her hair falling around her face, having come undone from the high knot she had made in the morning. After a moment's deliberation, she untied her blonde locks, allowing her fringe to fall back over her eye.

Let me guess, she thought dryly, tossing the sack over her shoulder, resigned. Another damsel in distress. A look won't hurt, but I won't be having anymore brats near my house. She wasn't sure if she could trust her heart, and walking towards the suspicious noise was always an inherently foolish move, but—

Deidara's eyes widened ever so slightly when she saw a girl a few years younger than herself break a man's nose with an open palm strike. There was already another man lying on the ground, his limbs splayed out awkwardly. The girl looked to be ten or eleven years old, and her dark hair whipped around her face as she steadied herself, panting slightly. She pushed her hair back and turned to look at Deidara, Byakugan activated and pulsing. Everything about the young preteen radiated command that was not easily broken, and Deidara shifted her weight in preparation for a confrontation.

"What do you think you're doing?" the girl—a Hyuuga, it would seem, if the dojutsu was any indication of her heritage—demanded. Behind that commanding exterior, there was also weariness that came from weeks of running, hiding, and altogether hoping for the best. "You..." She narrowed her eyes. "Who are you? I've seen you before."

"Who am I?" Deidara's voice was hoarse from disuse, and she cleared her throat. "No one too special, un. What about you, Hyuuga? Which one are you?"

"Answer my question," the Hyuuga said sharply. "I'm not in the mood for games. I'm on an important mission."

Oh, she was just adorable, wasn't she? Deidara chuckled darkly. "What do you know, so am I. But those dead soldiers are going to be a problem for both you and I if you just leave them here." Because, yes, they were obviously dead. She hadn't seen it, but Deidara was almost certain that shards of bone had pierced his brain when the girl had struck him upside the nose. And from the way the other man looked—with his limbs splayed awkwardly; lying face-down—he was dead, too. "You must not be from around here, un." Deidara pretended to be preoccupied with looking around their surroundings. "Patrols come around every five minutes along that main road. About one out of three of them take a looksie in dark, dangerous alleyways like this, un. Idiot," she added as an afterthought, because it'd been too long that she had wound someone up.

"I—" The Hyuuga sucked in a breath between her teeth. Hadn't thought of that, hung unspoken in the misty morning. "What do you suggest we do?"

"Well, I do have a few... devices, but they're too loud. There'll be more soldiers coming in... approximately three minutes, so I suggest stuffing them into that bin over there."

There was a beat, and the two girls stared each other down.

Then;

"Wait, that's it?" The Hyuuga did a slight double take before recovering. "Just... stuff them in there?"

Deidara cocked an eyebrow shrewdly. "If you have any better ideas, I'm listening."

Moments later, the two bodies had been shoved into empty trash cans.

"Now," Deidara said, dusting her hands. "What's a kid like you doing out here?" She kept on ear out for the approach of soldiers, but there were none.

"... Hanabi," the girl reluctantly said. "My name is Hyuuga Hanabi. And as for why I'm here... that's none of your concern."

"Then you can call me Deidara. I'd love to stay and chat a little longer, but I'm hungry and the brat that lives with me is probably hungry."

"Oh. You have a daughter? A younger sister, perhaps?"

Deidara immediately scowled. "Hell, no. I'm nineteen. And hell will freeze over the day I'm related to that thing." She looked around warily. "It's not safe out here. Don't stay here for too long, Hyuuga-chan."

Before Hanabi could protest, Deidara disappeared around the corner and made a mad, but silent, dash back to her home, not stopping until she reached her front door on the uppermost level.

The kid could take care of herself a little too well, Deidara had decided. She didn't need to be further burdened, and Hanabi had been there for a purpose—one that she would not disclose—which gave her less reason to bring her into her home.

Though, she silently mused. I have a feeling that this won't be the last I see of her. The Hyuuga are not allied with the Tsukigakure military in any way, last time I checked.

Deidara hadn't even stepped inside when a small figure tackle-hugged her, sending her stumbling backward a few steps. "Wha—Hitomi?"

"You were gone!" Hitomi yelled, glaring up at her with tears in her big blue eyes as she pulled away.

"I had to get us food, yeah," Deidara explained, uncomfortably. Why is she so...?

"You were gone," Hitomi repeated, more quietly this time. She looked down at the cold stone floor. "I... thought you left me for good."

"I..." Deidara let out a frustrated sigh. "Look, kid, even after all the trouble you caused me, you're still here. Why the hell would I leave you now, hm?" She moved inside, closing the door behind her. The older blonde tossed the bag of rice onto the dinner table, and then turned to stare down at Hitomi, arms crossed. "Well?"

Hitomi bit her lip. "I thought I was gonna die!"

"Don't be so over dramatic. Like I'd let you. Besides, you could survive a few days without me if you really tried, un."

"So what?" Hitomi looked like a hen left out in the rain.

Sighing again, Deidara tentatively reached out and ruffled Hitomi's hair. "So, nothing. I'm here now, okay? And trust me when I say I won't be going out there for a while. The food will last us approximately two weeks if we ration it." She hesitated, then went on, "After that, I can't make any promises. I'm going to have to go out for supplies, whether you like it or not."

"Then let me come with you! Maybe then I can find Ino-nee—"

"No way," Deidara interrupted. "You'll only get in the way."

"But—"

"Shut up, I'm going to make breakfast."

"Argh!" Hitomi glared after Deidara's retreating back. "I wouldn't be a li-ah-bi-li-ty if you trained me! So there."

Deidara halted, and Hitomi shrunk back. Had she said something wrong? Perhaps she had used the word 'liability' in the wrong context.

Hitomi's tiny heart beat faster as Deidara turned around with something pensive in her eyes. Perhaps... she would say yes?

"No," Deidara flatly refused.

Ah.

"Ehh?! Why not?" The seriousness of her request had officially gone over her head, and Hitomi stepped forward. "Is it because I'm a girl?"

"Little idiot!" Deidara snapped, temper flaring. "In case you've forgotten, I'm a girl, too! I don't want to train you because you have absolutely no idea what you're asking of me, un."

"Then I'll train myself!"

"Fine."

"Fine!"

Deidara kept one eye on her when Hitomi stormed over to Deidara's training dummy and began to move it around experimentally. That little brat better not fucking break anything, un.

Barely five minutes later, the wooden dummy's arm had whacked Hitomi across the head and caused a red mark to appear. She cried out in pain and whimpered, clutching the mild wound.

Deidara, who was over by the fire warming herself up as well as waiting for water to boil, sighed and got up. "And this," she gestured mockingly to Hitomi, "is why I said no. Hurts, doesn't it?" It didn't appear that the skin had broken, and Deidara had seen the little force the arm had hit Hitomi with, so she would be fine in a few minutes.

"I won't give up," Hitomi hissed, hating the haughty look on Deidara's face. "You'll see... I'll be strong enough to find Ino-nee."

That made Deidara pause, staring into nothing as Hitomi attempted to 'train' some more. Right, the Yamanaka heir. She'd suspected for some time now that Hitomi had left whatever safety she had once had to search for her big sister. It was something that she could grudgingly respect and perhaps admire despite the foolishness behind it.

Frustrated with her lack of progress, Hitomi whacked the row of spinning arms closest to her, causing them to gyrate violently. She yelped and flinched, but then Deidara was there, stopping the movement by grabbing one of the arms and holding it in place.

Hitomi tilted her head backward, eyes wide. "Huh...?"

"Sunrise, back courtyard, tomorrow morning," Deidara said brusquely, letting go of the now still arm. "Don't be late."

The water had finished boiling, and Hitomi could only stare after Deidara as the older girl went to tend to it.

Then Hitomi burst into a fit of quiet giggles and she smiled. Yes!


"Explain," Sasori said forcefully, eyeing the giant bruise on the side of Obito's face. His eye was swollen and half-closed. "Explain to me why the hell you thought it was a good idea for you to face two at once."

"Ah, well," Obito chuckled, the sound coming out strangely. Both men were currently seated in the kitchen of the Uchiha's home above the closed dango shop. "You see, there was this old lady that I helped cross the road... and she told me a sad story about how her son died fighting the big bald one. So I asked to fight him as well to avenge the old lady's son."

"Meaning," Rin said icily as she walked into the room, carrying a medical kit with her. She placed it on the table between the men and opened it up. "That this absolute idiot decided to put his life on the line for an extra bag of rice." She looked conflicted—torn between grateful, mad, and worried.

Obito winced when his wife started to dab at a laceration on his cheek with a cotton bud.

"Oh, suck it up," Rin whispered. "And don't go out to fight again. Not now, anyway. And don't ever do something so foolish again!"

"Maa, Rin..." Obito gave her a tired smile. "I'll try not to."

Sasori grumbled. "Your idiocy astounds me, sometimes. At least Rin-san is sensible."

"Hey, no hitting on my wife," Obito joked lamely. "Ouch, hey!" he complained when Rin dabbed particularly hard.

"My hand slipped," Rin demurred, a hint of mischief in her eyes. The small sparkle quickly disappeared. "I know how much you always pester Sasori-san when he comes over, and I'm sure he's tired of hearing about having to find a wife."

"Sorry," Obito apologized to both of them. "In these bleak times, I guess I'd just like something new to look forward to."

"Yes, well," Sasori looked out the window, "This is not up for debate. And I'd rather not hear about it; I get enough of it from the old dungeon bat."

Obito cackled. "Dungeon bat!"

Sasori cracked a small smile. "Aa. Speaking of, I should get going before curfew starts. I'll see you next time." Itachi will be pleased to hear that Obito is doing fine. Still being an idiot, despite everything. As for Sasuke...

That bridge could be crossed later.

Sasori was long gone and Obito had returned to the factory when Daichi and Hikari tumbled out of their hiding spot in the bathroom.

"Did you see otou-san's face?" whispered Hikari. "What happened...?"

"He got beat up," Daichi uttered, his face flattening into a frown. Otou-san...

"Daichi-nii?"

"Huh?"

Hikari held his hand. "I'm scared."

"... Don't be. Nothing's gonna happen."

"Swear on it?" Hikari held out her pinky.

Daichi hesitated. When he looped his pinky around hers. "Yeah, swear on it."


"A competition for rice?" Itachi echoed.

"Exactly what it sounds like," Sasori replied. "You should participate."

Itachi looked around at their campsite. "No. We have enough food as it is, right now. We are running scarce, but we will be able to scavenge more. But if things become worse..." Itachi closed his eyes. "I will do it."

"... It's because of Izumi, isn't it?"

"She's due any day, now," Itachi confessed.

"I understand. I should go."

"Sasori; always in a rush."

"I have to be, if it means dodging soldiers past curfew." Sasori turned his back on the Uchiha. "Goodbye, Itachi."

Sasori had just left when Hyuuga Hanabi returned from her daily explorations above ground. "Itachi-san," she said. "I found Deidara."


A brown-haired girl with her hair tied in a low ponytail was sweeping the Nohara-Uchiha teahouse front when a colorful kite caught her attention.

Chihiro tilted her head to one side.

A hand clamped over her mouth before she could scream.

Chapter Text

Hyuuga Hanabi was a strange case in this new world of theirs. Her family still lived, though the heir was missing, and while their existence was not as comfortable as it once was, they still scraped through.

Well, the Main Family did, anyway. The Branch Family...

Were simply irrelevant for the most part.

But for Hanabi, the second daughter of the Hyuuga Clan Head, Hyuuga Hiashi, she simply had no reason to be spending her days—or nights, even, when she was feeling particularly bold—skulking around in the Underground with the homeless.

Or at least an outsider would think as much.

"I was out looking for my sister," Hanabi reported to Itachi, her small face stoic. The mask she wore was not as well trained as Itachi's, but it would be soon. It would have to be—Hanabi was the next up-and-coming taijutsu prodigy ever since Itachi had been disowned. "When I encountered two soldiers from Tsukigakure. I took them out, but I made a grave oversight. Deidara discovered me before anything could happen, however, and helped me in... disposing of the bodies."

Itachi blinked slowly, and Hanabi could almost hear the wheels turning in his head. His thought process was one that she could never figure out, and she took solace in knowing that she probably wasn't only one who felt that way.

"Where?" Itachi prompted at last.

"North-east from our current location." She listed off the distance and described the general area. "She implied that she was living with someone—a younger female by the way she spoke." Hanabi paused. "I think she might be looking after the girl. She was... thin, thinner than the population down here, that's for sure."

"Thank you, Hanabi-san." Itachi dipped his head lightly to her in acknowledgement. "Deidara... is another person that can be saved."

Hanabi raised a brow. "Does this have anything to do with that escape plan I've been hearing about?"

"Not particularly. Hanabi-san, my head is not the only thing I think with, despite what yohe might think," Itachi reminded her gently. "Rest here for tonight. You can return in the morning."

"What are we going to do about her? And the girl...?"

"You'll know when you're ready," he said vaguely, seeming a little lost in thought before his gaze focused. "Oh, and Hanabi-chan?"

She startled at the sudden sharpness his voice had taken. "Y-yes?"

"Be more careful next time."

"... Yes. I will."


Izumi sighed deeply as she accepted the canteen from Sakura, sweat dotting her forehead. She'd come down with a slight fever last night, and Sakura, whose last patient had made a full recovery, was devoting almost all her time to Izumi. The woman was due any day now, which made the prospect of an illness particularly dangerous.

"The baby's late," Izumi spoke up once she had finished the water. Her brown creased in a worried frown. "Sakura... there's nothing wrong is there?"

"No, no," Sakura assured her. "It's normal for your first pregnancy to go past the anticipated date. In fact, many women carry for forty-two weeks or forty-three weeks rather than forty-one." She touched Izumi's shoulder, her hand warm. "Don't be worried."

Izumi let loose a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "In a way," she started, her face wan. "I'm glad. I don't want my baby to be born in such a place." Guiltily, she lowered her gaze.

"Of course not," Sakura's voice was barely above a whisper, "No one would."

Both females turned when Itachi entered the medical hut, the lines etched in his face more pronounced than ever.

"Anata," Izumi greeted, a gentle smile gracing her lips as Itachi lowered himself to hug her—the Uchiha woman was currently seated on a makeshift bed.

Itachi breathed in her scent before sighing silently. I'll need to have a word with Shikamaru and Shikaku soon. Those seals need to be figured out as soon as possible. After some exploration of the Underground City, a route outside Akatsuki had been discovered, but there were protective seals of long ago guarding the entrance.

What was most odd about the seals was that it seemed to have been recently falsified. They—Itachi, Shikamaru, and Shikaku—kept that information amongst themselves. There was no use in stirring up panic at the notion of there being an outside force that none of them were seemingly aware of.

"The baby's going to be fine," Izumi was telling him now, their hands entwined. As he had wandered in his thoughts, he'd taken a seat next to her, and now her head was resting on his shoulder. She reached over to the side and pulled a small bundle of cloth into her lap.

"As long as you keep eating well, it will be," Sakura cautioned, holding up a finger. "I know that it's tough around here—and thank the gods that Sasori was able to bring us some food and medicine last time—but you have to eat well. Do you understand?" She shot Itachi a look. "The acoustics down here are amazing, Itachi. Are you going to... fight?"

"Sakura," Izumi sharply interrupted. "Do not force such a thing on him. He and the others are working hard enough by keeping everything in order and organizing patrols and raids. Not to mention figuring out the seals."

"I meant no offence." Sakura was struggling to keep her voice even. "But you have to look at the bigger picture! If we were to send fighters above ground to win us food, it'll benefit everyone, including the child."

"I am not an idiot, Sakura. I know that. But how could I?" Izumi stood up, shaking the bed as her face paled. "How could I send my husband out there, knowing that he may not ever return? Surely, Sakura, you must understand!"

"That's enough," Itachi intervened, his tone placidly bland. His gaze met with Izumi's, unwavering. "Izumi... you will not make these kinds of decisions for me. We don't know when those seals will break; we should have started looking into a more long term solution weeks ago."

"Itachi, you...!" Izumi clenched her fists, torn.

"Let's not rush into things just yet," Itachi murmured, taking her by the hand. "I'm not saying that we're going to be fighting for their entertainment. Food and seal-breaking are our current priorities. But to fight for it... we are not so desperate."

"For now," Sakura stated, crossing her arms.

"Knowing you, you'll take action when the time comes," Izumi said before crouching down to pick up the bundle of cloth that had fallen to the ground when she stood.

"When it is necessary, yes," Itachi confirmed. "Do not mistake me as caring for every single soul in this place equally." It was cold, and perhaps more than a little cruel, but he would not lie—what was their 'nation' of underground dwellers if not a group of individuals with their own selfish desires? "Our family comes first." He said this to Izumi, completely ignoring Sakura's presence. He could feel her chakra buzzing around her anxiously, but it was nothing new. They were all on edge.

Izumi looked up at, her eyes searching. "You do realize our family includes you, too, right?" When he nodded, she relaxed slightly. "Good. I don't want you going off and doing... something suicidal. You've always been too kind." But I suppose if you weren't, we would be in this position. If you weren't kind, you would still be heir.

All three of them fell into a silence, and Izumi unfolded the cloth bundle to reveal two small clay figurines—a tengu and a fox—and a wooden carving of a deer.

"Am I interrupting something?" A blue head poked through the doorway, and the oil lamp in the room illuminated Kisame's face. "I couldn't help but overhear something about seals, Itachi-sama."

"Hoshigaki-sama," Itachi acknowledged, moving away from his wife toward him. "Why don't we talk outside?"


Kisame looked up at the iron wall, which was painted with all sorts of seals that were unrecognizable. "Whoever did this must have been a true seal master." He paused. "And older than a fossil."

"We came to the same conclusion," Shikamaru voiced, his voice less drawling than usual.

"We've determined that some of the symbols are variations of symbols that are normally used in the north," Shikaku added. He was favoring his left leg, and Kisame strongly suspected that the man was nursing an injury. "So, Konohagakure. A land that has bred some notable samurai in the past four hundred years."

"A variation, huh?" Kisame stroked his chin. "I've seen a lot of variations in my travels, but never something as complicated and utterly unfamiliar as this."

"Well, you tried. Thanks anyway," Shikamaru said, slouching. "Breaking these seals... is the only way to get this damn wall to open up."

"Sealing is like a language," Shikaku mused. "A dialect; that would be more accurate. Each seal-master has a unique way of sealing in the sense that they like to change up their strokes so that it differs from the traditional, textbook way." He tossed Kisame a side glance. "It's not surprising that you and I cannot comprehend it. The Nara are acclaimed geniuses... but it will still take time for us to decipher this and counter it with the appropriate seal."

"That's not reassuring at all," muttered Kisame, his hand twitching as he nearly reached for Samehada. But not even his sword could cut through the reinforced iron. He doubted anything short of a massive explosion would do—and even then, he wasn't sure if the seals would allow for it to open. Not to mention the dangers of setting off an explosive Underground.

"We've made some progress," Shikamaru informed him. "That quadrant in the top left can be countered with what we have so far," he pointed at the appropriate area, "but it wouldn't be the best idea to do that without knowing how to do the rest."

"Of course," Kisame agreed. "Everything here is connected, which is..."

"Extremely troublesome," Shikaku and Shikamaru said in unison, shooting each other a knowing, amused glance.

Kisame sweatdropped slightly. The resemblance between them is uncanny...


"Tea," Hanabi announced before entering the hut Ino stayed in. "... Hi, Ino."

"Ah, Hanabi." Ino offered her a tentative smile, shifting on her futon. "Tea again?"

"Yes," Hanabi answered patiently. She's opened up a more since the last time I saw her. I need to know if she saw Hinata, but... baby steps. "Uh, I would have brought biscuits, but, y'know..." The war. The soldiers. Everything.

"It's fine. Thanks for... coming to see me. Shikamaru stopped coming over a few days ago." There was a sadness in her voice hat Hanabi managed to place, and she frowned. "It's not his fault," Ino swiftly added when she saw her disapproving look. "I just...!"

"May I hold your hand?"

Ino hesitated. Then she held out her hand. "If you want."

"Shikamaru's an idiot," Hanabi said bluntly, squeezing her hand.

Ino chuckled. "That's fair." She breathed out, leaning back and supporting her weight with her palms. "But then again... I haven't exactly been myself lately. If only Naruto could see me now, he'd call me pathetic and give some kind of empowering speech..." Her eyes hardened. "I fucking hate them."

A rock formed in Hanabi's stomach. She had long since figured out what had happened to Ino based on her behavior and clues...

"What they took from me." Hanabi felt her eyes water from keeping them open for too long, fixated on Ino's furious expression. She was shaking now. Not from grief—she had had a long time to mourn what she had lost—but from pure fury. "I'll never get it back."

Hanabi sensed a "but" coming, but she stayed silent, the teapot—tea was a very rare thing; she'd brought this particular brew from her home—steaming in her hands.

"I want them to burn," she rasped, her fingers twitching. "All of them."

But she's one teenager against an entire army, Hanabi thought to herself, frowning. This should have never been her war to fight. It's not even ours, it... we... we're just caught up in the crossfire. "Ino, don't do anything reckless," Hanabi warned. "I won't pretend to understand how you feel, but please don't. There's... too many of them."

"You think I don't know that?!" Ino shouted, and Hanabi cringed as the blonde's ire turned to her. "Do you really think that...!" Seething, she wiped at her eyes. She wiped at them so hard that Hanabi figured that her vision would be blurry for at least a few minutes. "I've lost... my family. My sense of self. And do you know why?"

Hanabi didn't know, no.

"Because I was too weak to defend myself. Too slow to run." Ino stood, turned around, and, taking a deep breath, undid the sash around her yukata and let it fall.

Hanabi had to steel her nerves at what she saw.

Burn marks. Wicked, unforgiving burn marks marred the porcelain skin on her back. They had scarred as ugly as possible.

"I need to get stronger," Ino whispered, picking up her garment and redressing. "If I won't... I'll never survive."

Hanabi shakily stood up. "I could try and help, if you want." This wasn't about Hinata anymore. For now. "But I... I've never trained anyone before. Maybe you should ask one of the taijutsu masters down here. Like... Itachi-san or Hoshigaki-sama."

"... Maybe," Ino eventually said, tying the sash around her waist. "But if I ever get out of here alive, there's two things I want to do."

"And what are those?" To her relief, Hanabi's voice was unwavering. She wasn't sure how to deal with this new development, but showing weakness would do her no good. If there was anything that she had absorbed from her father's teachings, it was to never show your enemies and allies weakness and hesitation. She'd stumbled enough—she would stumble no more, she vowed.

"I'm going to seek out Tsunade the Sennin to learn her kekkei genkai. Forehead can help me with that," she said gravely. "I'm not losing anybody else. And the second thing..."

Hanabi leaned forward.

"I'm going to do whatever the hell I want. And I'm going to live by that rule for the rest of my life."

"... I like that rule," Hanabi confessed passively, her eyes flashing.

They drank their tea in silence after that.

Then;

"She wasn't there," Ino said suddenly. "That's why you've been coming." Hanabi opened her mouth to protest but Ino cut her off, "Our families had diplomatic relations. I know how your dad raised you. To think with your head before your heart. So, no, I haven't seen her. Hinata... she wasn't there. But at least you have some hope... my family on the other hand... they all perished in the fire."

"No," Hanabi said before she could even think about it. "Your sister. She's alive." Wheels began to turn in her brain. "She was here with us, before she... left us."

Ino's eyes widened, and the blood drained from her face. "And none of you stopped her?" she breathed.

"We never knew. But I have a feeling... that she's alive."

Ino nearly flipped the table as she stood up, her posture rigid. "Someone's going to pay."


Hitomi stared up at the bell tied up on a low tree branch. She and Deidara were currently in the back courtyard, and she had just gone through some basic katas.

"You want me to kick the bell?" Hitomi inquired dubiously. "B-but..." It's so high! Who can even kick that high?!

"You're not going to complain, are you?" Deidara raised an eyebrow. "Because if you are, there's no point in even continuing, un."

"Uhm... what's the point of this?"

Deidara had to give her some credit. She snorted. Clever brat; wording her complaint in a question. Well, if she was going to play dirty like that, then Deidara didn't see any point in sugar coating anything. "The point is to improve your flexibility. Because right now, it's pretty fucking terrible."

Hitomi's ears burned at the curse word, but she nodded anyway.

"Of course, that's not the only kind of flexibility training you'll be doing." Deidara gestures to a pair of higher branches parallel to each other. "If you think the bell exercise is bad, think again, un." She paused. "I don't expect you to kick the hell on your first attempt. You'll be spending fifteen minutes on it, before we move on."

"Yes... sensei."

Deidara narrowed her eyes. "You're the one who bugged me into doing it. Don't get watery and weak on me now."

"Yes, sensei!" Hitomi repeated, straightening. I'll need to use the high kick that she got me to do this morning. Her leg shot up, but not straight. This was going to take a while, and they both knew it.

Deidara had moved her training dummy outside, so she occupied herself with it while Hitomi attempted to kick the bell, sweat already dripping down her forehead in glistening beads. Of course, she had an eye on Hitomi as well, making sure that she didn't accidentally do something stupid like fall forward and hit her head on the tree trunk.

My very first student, huh? Deidara mused, her muscles moving on autopilot. Hopefully, it doesn't turn into a complete disaster. Obito was the only one of us who ever took on a student, as far as I know. Gai and Shisui were too busy for that kind of stuff. Gai with his "youthful" activities, and Shisui with the military police. She hadn't known Itachi very well, and had only ever spoken to him when she came over to visit Izumi, but the man had liked keeping a low profile so she doubted that he had ever taken an apprentice before.

"Argghh!" Hitomi cried in frustration, briefly distracting Deidara from her thoughts. The younger girl soon returned to her vain attempts, allowing Deidara to immerse herself in her training.

A red-haired man with a slightly peeved expression appeared in her mind, and her lips quirked. And finally, we have Sasori no Danna.

Sasori, whose perspective of art clashed so terribly with her own. Sasori, who she took joy in driving up the wall (sometimes it was the opposite, but she was mostly her instigator). Sasori, who she used as a measuring stick and vice versa. Their relationship was not perfectly mutualistic, but it worked out nicely.

Deidara paused. He could be dead as far as she knew. The thought didn't sit right with her, and she pushed it to the back of her mind. He's too skilled to be dead. I've seen the way he chops chicken at the shop. Anyone who segments a whole chicken like that in ten seconds is someone not to be trifled with. He's alive. He has to be.

"Fifteen minutes is up," Deidara announced, halting the moving arms of her dummy and striding back to Hitomi. "That was... pretty terrible, un."

"Ugh."

Is she tired already? How cute. She probably thinks that nothing else I put her through will even compare to the bell exercise. Oh how she would enjoy proving her wrong.

At the end of the day, Hitomi was dead on her feet. She could hardly make it back up to the apartment, which meant Deidara had to carry her on her back. It wasn't the most pleasant experience, considering the cold sweat on their skin.

"Mrrghh... Deidara?"

"Yeah?"

"... That was kinda fun. I guess."

"Good. Because tomorrow will be even more fun. In which 'more fun' is a euphemism for 'harder', un," she quipped, grinning.

"Urgghh..."

Deidara dumped her on the bed and promptly started up another fire. "Sleep tight, kid."

"Hate... you..."


"Hitomi, run!" Ino yelled, grabbing her sister by the hand and whisking her away. Behind them, their house burned, flames taller than the both of them combined rising into the air. Eyes wide, Hitomi allowed herself to be dragged along by her sister, her entire body numb.

Everything was burning. Her dresses. Her dolls. The diary that she kept underneath her mattress. It was all burning.

"Where's otou-sama?" Hitomi demanded as they fled through the night, combining with a crowd of hysterical civilians whose houses had also been destroyed. "And okaa-san?"

"Dead," Ino whispered, her breath coming out in pants. "They're... gone." Tears rolled down her soot-covered face, and she didn't even flinch when someone jostled her.

Gunfire rattled the air, and the crowd shouted apprehensively, moving frantically at random for shelter.

"Hitomi?!" Ino screamed when their hands separated, the smaller girl shoved aside by a terrified woman. "Hitomi! Take my hand!"

"Nee-chan! Help! Help me!" Ino shook as a rough hand grabbed her shoulder and wrenched her away from where she had last seen Hitomi.

"Help! Help...!" Ino and the crowd faded away into darkness, and Hitomi continued to wriggle and shriek desperately.


In the darkness, Hitomi's eyes snapped open, her pupils dilated and her face wet. "Ino-nee," she rasped out, her throat parched.

She heard a light snore. Deidara. She could hardly see anything, meaning that she would never be able to get past Deidara, a trained martial artist.

Biting her lip, Hitomi flopped her head down on the pillow again, her thoughts whirring in her mind at a rapid pace.

Tomorrow, Deidara said she would be going out early to do something. That's my chance! Her blood began to race in anticipation. It'd been a week since Deidara had started training her, and she had most of the basic katas down. Despite having been pampered most of her life, her child's body was incredibly adaptable, and her flexibility had improved greatly. Her fists clenched around the sheets. If I'm careful, I'll be able to take a quick look around while she's gone and be back before she notices. Just a quick look, in case Ino-nee is around... With that thought inplanted in her head, she drifted back to sleep.


Deidara knew it would be a shitty morning when a drop of dirty rainwater was thing that had her sitting up on the couch groggily, muttering angrily. The sun had risen behind the clouds not long ago, so Deidara could see the current source of her ire: a leaky roof.

"Of all the..." Like the living conditions here aren't bad enough, un. I'm going to have to find a bucket and move the couch.

Her mood worsened when she remembered what she intended to do today. "Right," she uttered, her head spinning from having sat up too quickly. "The bodies..." She'd been paranoid ever since her run-in with Hanabi and their hasty disposal of the Tsukigakure soldiers. What if they find out? constantly plagued her mind, and she'd decided last night to check if they were still there. If they were, she'd move them somewhere less prone to discovery.

Like an annoyed badger, Deidara quickly got dressed in her usual outfit: a fighting gi with her bastardized Akatsuki cloak wrapped around her shoulders, shrouding everything except for her feet and head from sight.

Hitomi was still fast asleep, the lazy creature. No matter. When Deidara got back, she'd make sure to give the Yamanaka girl a rude awakening.

Deidara closed the front door behind her and descended the stone steps, the early morning breeze blowing in her face and nearly pulling the hood of her cloak off.

She took a detour, successfully dodging a few patrols and four streets worth of walking. Deidara grimaced when the scent of rot hit her nose, and she hurried past the cold, dusty body of an elderly man with his eyes pecked out by crows.

That was so fucked up. Deidara felt her stomach flip but she pushed the feeling back. She blocked out the image of the old man and pressed forward, the bottom of her boots scuffing against the stone walkway.

Eventually, she reached the alleyway where she and Hanabi had had their confrontation. It looked mostly the same, and there was no evidence of there having been any searches for the missing soldiers.

Deidara sagged with relief. Then she steeled herself and marched over to the trash cans where she and Hanabi had stuffed the bodies. She reached for the lid. Here goes nothing, un.

There was nothing in there.

Deidara felt the blood in her veins chill and turn to ice. "What the hell?" she whispered, alarmed. Arm shaking more than she would have liked, she checked the other trash can. Again, there was nothing. "Who...? Shit."

Her foot landed in a small puddle, a spray of water sent up her pant leg and she ran through the alley and back to her home. If they're gone, it means that they know. It has to be! But there hadn't been any searches or raids in the area. If there had been, it would be loud, and she would have known and most certainly fled with Hitomi in tow.

Hitomi. Oh god, Hitomi. Deidara had a kid in her care, and she might as well have damned the little girl with her own carelessness.

She slowed when she reached a popular route for patrols, and then quickly scuttled back to her home, her heart thumping in her chest.

Back up the stone steps she went, and she slammed the door open, a grave expression on her face. "Hitomi—"

The rock in her stomach expanded to gigantic proportions when she saw that there was no girl in the bed, or anywhere at all. Swearing, she searched through her home, checking the bathroom and the courtyard.

Hitomi was gone.

"Shitshitshitshit," Deidara hissed, stomping back to the front door. Did they take her?! Warily, she entertained the idea, but the relatively unchanged state of the apartment said otherwise. If she had been taken, there would have been signs of a struggle. Hitomi was a fighter beneath that bratty, passive exterior—there was no way she would have gone down without a fight. Unless she'd been taken at gunpoint or sedated. Deidara shook her head. No, no. The bed was made. Hitomi...

"Left on her own, the stupid brat!" Deidara punched the wall without her chakra, making the entire room shake for a moment. Her knuckles began to ache, but she couldn't waste anymore time. I cannot believe her! she fumed as she left her apartment once more and practically jumped the entirety of the stone steps. Her heartbeat had pretty much elevated into a constant state of furiously fast beating, and there was a nervous sweat beading on the back of her neck despite the cold, making her blonde hair stick uncomfortably to the nape.

Somewhere along the way, in those two months, Deidara had come to care more for her than she liked to admit. Hell, she'd basically taken that kid in as her own. Now a week after commencing her training, she was gone?

Think about it, she told herself as she searched, trying not to appear too suspicious to the soldiers patrolling the streets. Think about why she left. Nobody does anything without a reason, no matter how stupid it might be. What could Hitomi possibly gain from wandering outside? She knew I was going out today, un; it's not a coincidence. It clicked almost immediately.

Ino.

Everything led back to Ino, annoyingly enough. Deidara wasn't a fan of one track minds, and Hitomi was proving to her biggest source of ire yet today.

She must have left to find her sister, Deidara concluded, narrowing her eyes. Hitomi, you fool! Did you think that one week of training would ensure that you wouldn't be hurt out there? If you die... Her heart jumped to her throat and she shook that morbid thought away.

Deidara slowed to a stop, checking her surroundings. Where would Hitomi look? Certainly not out in the open. She'd be skulking around alleyways and unpopular paths. She'd...

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught movement. Standing at the end of the road was Hitomi, and she was looking up at someone.

Deidara tensed. A Tsukigakure soldier?

But then the morning mist cleared and Deidara's eyes widened.

Sasori, clad in his red-less Akatsuki cloak, stared back at her, equally stunned at her appearance.


That morning, Chiyo burst into Sasori's room with a familiar box in her arms. Sasori, who'd already been awake and was working on one of his puppets, looked up, frowning.

"A delivery box?" he questioned. "We've been out of business since the invasion."

"Cut the sass, boy," Chiyo said briskly. "This contains a medicine I brewed for an informant of mine who lives across the city. I'm not sure if she's still alive or not, which is why I need you to bring this to her. She was ill with pneumonia the last time I heard from her."

Chiyo had an elaborate 'spy' network across the city, funnily enough. Elaborate for an elderly, retired taijutsu master at any rate. It was mostly composed of old gossips like her that had managed to survive the initial stages of the invasion, but Sasori knew that there was one particularly valuable informant that had ties with the Tsukigakure force. She was a woman with Tsukigakure blood running through her veins, and had moved to Akatsuki a few years ago. Thanks to her origins, she had certain ins with the military, but her heart belonged to Amegakure and Akatsuki.

"Ah," Sasori raised an eyebrow, "So her. How cavalier of you, baa-sama, to send your only living relative into the fray for a mere an informant."

"I told you to cut the sass, didn't I?" Chiyo said gruffly, shoving the box in his arms. "You sneak around in the dark well enough. If it gets too dangerous, return here immediately. You're too strong to have your strings cut by cannon fodder."

In the end, it turned out that Chiyo's informant had died from her illness, if the body in the living room had been any indication, leaving Sasori in a black mood as he stored the medicine in a storage scroll.

He was passing through an unfamiliar neighbourhood when a tiny figure in the mist caught his eye. A child? Out here? Sasori grimaced when he neared and saw her young face.

The girl saw him, too, and she blinked, shirking back warily.

"Stop that," Sasori ordered, stopping in front of heel. "If I was really an enemy, you'd already be on the ground." She was skin and bones, this girl, and looked as if the wind could blow her away.

"Who are you?" the girl bleated, taking a stance.

Sasori blinked slowly, as much surprise as he would show in the face of this child. She's had martial arts training, hm? Not bad, but she's going to have to do a lot better than that.

The morning mist that weaved about them began to clear, and Hitomi took a step backward, looking up at him with a strange mix of fear and defiance.

And that was when he saw her, a seemingly pale imitation from the girl he had known. She stood not too far away from him, her hood having fallen off to reveal dull, blonde hair. The Akatsuki cloak she wore—she'd taken out the red strands, like him—billowed slightly around her form, giving her a ghostly, ethereal look.

Their gazes met, and Sasori allowed himself a small, surprised intake of breath.

Deidara.

 

Chapter Text

Naruto glanced up at the grey sky exasperatedly, holding a wooden broom with bristly ends in one hand. His eyes were not as bright as usual, and Konohamaru resisted the urge to nail the blond in the back of the head with a rock. The low morale was getting to all of them, though the younger boy tried desperately not to show it, especially in front of Moegi and Udon.

The older boy's lack of enthusiasm was most definitely a combination of bitterness and cabin fever. Disease undoubtedly ran rampant outside, and though no one had gotten extremely sick in the past few weeks, it was better safe than sorry. Not to mention the ongoing patrols of Tsukigakure soldiers marching through the city.

"You missed a spot," Moegi said halfheartedly, pointing at a dusty area. She too was holding a broom, though it seemed to be newer than the one Naruto and Konohamaru possessed. "Better get that, or Iruka-san will be annoyed."

Konohamaru, who was standing closer to the still dirty spot, shuffled over. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen anything beyond the factory, the closed teahouse, and the front courtyard that used to host hundreds of street stands selling exotic spices, foreign fabrics, and delicious skewered meat.

None of them could remember the last time they had bathed or showered, two luxuries that had quickly been swept away during the night of the invasion. Their faces were perpetually caked with dirt, dust, and natural oils. Sometimes, Tenten would find a relatively clean rag lying around and wet it. Then she'd wipe their faces down, starting with the youngest, Chihiro, followed by Konohamaru, Moegi, and Udon. She'd do her own face next, then Lee's and Naruto's, though it wouldn't always necessarily be in that order. They would be clean for a few hours before dirtying up again.

Konohamaru's hand twitched around the handle of his broom as he swept, reminded of the fate that had befell Chihiro just days ago. Well, none of them knew what had happened to her, just that she'd been sweeping the courtyard one day before going missing.

Iruka ordered them to do their outside chores in groups of three, now.

"I'm sick of this!"

Moegi nearly dropped her broom at Naruto's outburst; he'd thrown the broom across the courtyard floor.

"Naruto-nii," she said awkwardly, scuttling over to where he stood, his shoulders rising and falling angrily, and picking up his broom for him.

"When is this damn war going to end?!" Naruto shouted to the sky, a glare on his face. The shouting attracted the attention of Lee and Tenten, who poked their heads outside to see what was going on. His teeth were gritted. "I… can't stand this! We can't do anything anymore! We can't even go outside!" Technically, they were outside, but Konohamaru knew what he meant. Naruto waved his arm wildly at the space in front of him. "What happened to basic human rights, huh?!"

Tenten stepped in at that. "Naruto," she said bluntly, her brow furrowed. "Cut it out already. I know things are bad, but we just have to make do with what we have." Inwardly, she agreed thoroughly with the blond boy, but she knew that voicing her agreement would only make him more vehement about the circumstances of their current situation. Naruto glared at her, but she placed a firm hand on his shoulder and met his stare evenly. "This isn't forever. Nothing is eternal. Things are going to get better, just not..." She sighed. "Just not now, okay?"

As the oldest, they all knew that Tenten faced the pressure of looking after all of them, simply because nobody else was around enough to do so. The factory workers still around had their own homes to return to, however broken down, including Iruka. Sometimes, he stayed, but when he wasn't there, everything fell back to Tenten. When they had lost Chihiro, their mourning was forced to be brief, and Tenten had taken it the hardest. Naruto could see the dark circles collecting underneath her eyes, and he faltered.

"Doesn't mean I have to like it," he muttered, his eyes fixed on the ground. He took the broom from Moegi. "You know me, Tenten," he chuckled, the sound sour, "Complaining makes me feel a whole lot better, dattebayo."

It was then Iruka appeared, his face haggard but smiling wearily. "Everyone, come back inside. Lunch is ready."

'Lunch' consisted of a few potatoes and scraps everybody had scrounged up, and a thin, tasteless congee made of water and rice, though the water to rice ratio was extremely unbalanced. The grain was rare, nowadays, and they used their rice rations sparingly. Still, they took what they could get, and the factory stopped for a moment in time as everybody devoured their meager meals.

Naruto ate his congee at breakneck speed compared to everyone else, Lee close behind. The latter boy's hair had grown out in messy, bushy spikes down his back. One time, Tenten saved him from getting his black locks caught in one of the machines.

Konohamaru looked around at the people sitting on the rickety wooden tables. There were about twenty workers left in the factory, but since they were making absolutely nothing, he figured the lack of staff mattered much. He suspected that the Nohara-Uchiha family only kept the place open to keep them busy, and to achieve some sort of normalcy in their lives. He sighed and unenthusiastically ate his congee and the half of a potato that Udon had given him (Konohamaru noticed that the boy, who's eyesight was poor but not that poor, kept the bigger half to himself).

There were so few of them left. There used to be hundreds of people working in that factory. It made them all feel at least a little vulnerable, especially since the last time Obito had shown, it had been with multiple bruises on his face and arms. Rin always looked so worried whenever they saw her, and, personally, Konohamaru thought that she looked like she had aged fifty years.

A rat scuttled by somewhere, but none of them even reacted to the presence of the rodent. Nor did they see, much less react, the rat's violent death—swallowed whole by a medium-sized snake on the verge of death.


Her hands were cold, even when they were balled up in the long sleeves of her cloak. Her hair—the part not tied up in a high ponytail—fell loosely around her shoulders, curling lightly at the bottom. Only the ends could be seen, as both of them had their hoods up.

Sasori led the way, Deidara close behind and holding Hitomi's hand tightly.

"Danna, left," Deidara murmured, her hand tightening around Hitomi's.

"I know."

Automatically, they slipped to the side and pressed against the walls, just as a small crowd of soldiers rounded the corner they'd been nearing. They were talking in hushed voices, their military boots clicking against the ground in some sort of bastardized goose-march.

Hitomi trembled slightly, nearly knocking over a broken wooden table, but a squeeze from Deidara's hand stopped her from shifting enough to do so.

"Sasori-no-Danna," Deidara breathed out, their shoulders pressed together. "Are you sure you're not out of your mind?"

His brown eyes flickered over to her. Her hood was covering the majority of her face in side profile, but he could feel how tense the muscles in her shoulders were. "I'm fairly sure that I'm sound of mind, yes. Why? Would you prefer to return to your decrepit apartment?"

"We'll eat you out of house and home, un."

The soldiers were gone. Sasori, Deidara, and Hitomi slipped onto the street again, speeding up their pace slightly.

"You told me you brought your own rations," he said calmly, eyes moving left and right to search for any soldiers. They were still in a part of the city that Sasori was not too intimately familiar with, and it was far enough from where Deidara had been living that she didn't know how the patrols worked here, either. It'd been sheer luck that they'd heard the voices and boots of the previous group of militants.

"I did, yeah." She frowned slightly; she had packed everything important—food, some clothes—into a scroll Sasori had provided her with. But still...

For a moment, their gazes met, and Deidara knew that Sasori would be unyielding on this matter. So she accepted defeat with a quiet grace.

"Um, Deidara?" Hitomi voiced hesitantly, looking up at the back of the girl's clothed head with wide, uncertain eyes.

"Later," the woman replied curtly, not even turning around.

Hitomi lowered her gaze, allowing herself to continue to be led by the older girl. "Okay."

Their first meeting since before the war began had been... remarkably less awkward than Deidara had anticipated, and she supposed that was mostly thanks to Sasori's unflappable personality. He had changed little—his frame was narrower, obviously, but that was the case for everyone, so that could be overlooked. She knew that he was older than he looked, and his face had retained the most of the same youth it had had during times of peace.

She was tentative, at first, to accept his sudden appearance in such a place. He and his grandmother lived on the opposite side of the city, after all. But he was undoubtedly Sasori, and, reluctantly, they slipped back into a small, tense fraction of their old dynamic.

Perhaps it was for the sake of old friendship, but he offered her sanctuary in his home. A home that she had been to only once for utterly unimportant reasons, and, banking on the fact that not much of their apartment's structure had been altered since the invasion, one that was cleaner and more homely than the abandoned flat that Deidara had been living in the past two months.

As Deidara briefly recalled their encounter, Hitomi kicked a small pebble at the unmoving body of a rat. It sat up and hissed, scampering away, but not before giving the girl a mild fright.

Sasori turned his head ever so slightly, his flinty brown eyes sliding to the left to see Hitomi grimace. To her credit, the girl didn't scream or do anything else that would attract the attention of enemy soldiers like flies to honey.

Inoichi's youngest, he had concluded a while ago. According to baa-sama's 'informants', he died on the night of the attack. She would have been a pretty little thing if she didn't look so terribly malnourished. He had no doubt that food had been tight for them, and he couldn't help but wonder if Deidara had gone to entertain Uchiha Madara's machinations—the competition was crude and unstructured—distasteful and artless—and he slowly digested that thought with a healthy dose of disgust.

Sasori's face was completely blank as he remembered the expression Deidara's eyes had held when she had found them. It'd been an amalgamation of sheer relief, frustration, and anger. Then she'd noticed him, and it'd been like all the color had suddenly been sucked out of her, leaving behind a pale imitation of herself.

Chiyo normally recommended hot thyme tea for shock.

Sasori hated thyme.

Dutifully, they trudged back to his home, dodging patrols and the occasional dusty-gray body that had yet to be cleaned up or eaten.

She's been out of the loop, Sasori reminded himself. I doubt she knows anything of the Underground. He hadn't checked up on them in a while, busying himself his and Chiyo's own survival, as well as the Nohara-Uchiha's. She and Itachi aren't familiar, but I'm willing to bet Izumi misses her greatly. Her presence would be welcome. He was impatient to inform her of what had been happening while she was gone, but they couldn't speak now. Not when they were so vulnerable already, out in the open like this. And they were all feeling it—while she tried to seem relaxed, Deidara's entire body was a knot of tension, and Hitomi had all but sunken her tiny body into the folds of Deidara's cloak, as if the fabric would protect her from the dangers in the city.

And, Sasori considered, it probably would. Little girls and women were especially 'at risk', and Sasori was not unaware of the rapes and beatings that happened outside his home. At least Deidara could pass off as male well enough, with the cloak and hood concealing her curves and facial features, but Hitomi was utterly exposed.

He could hear Deidara suck in a breath through her teeth when they finally arrived at Akatsuki Square.

Once upon a time, it'd been the city's beating heart, a hub of noise and entertainment.

Now, things were still, and Sasori could have sworn that the stone flooring had absorbed in more gray.

"Don't look, brat," Sasori advised, allowing just a tinge of concern to seep into his voice—to comfort her, because she'd been with only the company of a child less than half her age for the past two months.

"Y-yeah, that's the plan..." Deidara mumbled under her breath, her fringe falling further across her face. She used her free hand to brush it away when it threatened to cover her right eye as well.

Hitomi was staring up at her curiously, but kept quiet, something that both adults were greatful for. Deidara because she wasn't sure how she would deal with it when she heard Hitomi's voice bleat nonsensical things again, and Sasori simply because children were simply tolerable, and he lacked the patience for them most days.

Chiyo's Chicken Rice, now closed, sat at the bottom level of one of the buildings encompassing the large quadrangle. Sasori's home was two levels above the store.

"Tadaima," Sasori announced tonelessly, opening the door to his and Chiyo's unit. He slipped his nondescript shoes off, Deidara doing the same, albeit with more difficulty. She wore military boots, while Hitomi's footwear were a pair of dusty martial arts slippers that were a little too big for her. How did she train with those on? Sasori briefly thought before Chiyo emerged from another room.

The old woman's eyebrows immediately raised past her hairline when she saw just who Sasori was in the company of. Her lips curled upward in a mischievous smile, and Sasori inwardly groaned, preparing for a remark jabbing at his status as a single man entering his thirties.

"I must say," Chiyo demurred, setting Sasori on edge. Nobody could quite do that like his grandmother, he begrudgingly admitted. "If I knew that international warfare and a famine would bring you a candidate bride, I would have marched up to Empress Kaguya myself and declared war before she did to Pein."

Sasori sighed; the sound was always one of long-suffering. "Baa-sama, please. Your humor is not needed in such a time."

Deidara's eyes lit up at the annoyance in his voice. So, she mused, this war hasn't turned him into one of his puppets, after all. It relieved her, this small bit of irritation he displayed. She knew it wasn't completely rational, but knowing that he was still human despite his wooden exterior was comforting. And his old woman, well...

Frankly, Deidara liked her already, even if she did insinuate that they were having some kind of sordid affair. She stifled a snort.

"Forgive me for my rudeness," Chiyo said to Deidara, shuffling past Sasori, who shot her a glance of pure exasperation and holding out her hand in a very informal gesture. "My name is Chiyo."

"You don't sound very sorry, un," Deidara stated, and Chiyo gave her a haughty look. Deidara grinned and shook the woman's offered hand. "I'm Deidara, yeah, and this is..." Hitomi squirmed underneath her blue gaze, and Deidara felt a small prick of pity despite herself. "... My ward, Yamanaka Hitomi." That's right brat, she wanted to crow when she saw Hitomi's eyes widen a little, You're not the only one who knows how to guilt trip.

"Yamanaka, eh?" Chiyo chuffed morbidly. "I heard that your clan has been... downsized by quite a considerable amount."

"Baa-sama," Sasori said sharply, noting the slight narrowing of Deidara's eyes.

"It's an uncomfortable truth. Deal with it." Chiyo's bluntness came down like a hammer on all of them, even Sasori. "Now..." She placed her hands on her hips and looked down her nose at her two house guests. "If you want to stay here, I hope you brought enough food. And don't expect to be waited on hand and foot. I'm looking at you, Yamanaka. You're going to earn your keep. Help around the house, accompany my grandson because he needs lady friends," she looked at Deidara, who twitched in a mixture of amusement and discomfort, "And don't make a mess. Are we clear?"

"Crystal," Deidara answered crisply, straightening. She'd removed her hood when she'd come in, and her blonde hair was a wind-blown mess from earlier this morning. Dirt caked her face. Hitomi was in a similar state, though she looked a bit fresher.

Chiyo wrinkled her nose. "First thing in order—both of you are taking a hot bath. A long one."

Hitomi met her gaze willingly for the first time. "W-with hot water?!" She looked wildly between Sasori and Chiyo. "You have hot water, Chiyo-baa-sama?!"

And the old woman cackled. "No. Why, did you?"

"Well, not exactly..." Hitomi trailed off. They did boil water and carry it outside to splash themselves occasionally, but Deidara wasn't very fond of bathing in general, claiming that they had nothing to dry thick enough to dry themselves off with, and that their wetness would cause fever.

"Then why ask?" Chiyo beckoned them forward, moving aside to another room. "Come. I'll boil up some water; girl, you go first. Deidara-san, you're next. Sasori, no peeking."

"I would never," Sasori deadpanned, his gaze as flat as his tone.

"Stop pretending that you're not a giant mass of hormones and make yourself useful," Chiyo retorted, pointing to the kitchen. "We can have an early lunch."

"Oh, right," Deidara said before Sasori could respond, pulling the scroll containing their rations and clothing out. "Here." As his grandmother was distracted, he grumpily heeded her advice, disappearing into the kitchen.

Chiyo clicked her tongue, accepting the storage scroll. "One of his finer ones."

Intrigued, Deidara echoed, "Finer ones? Does that mean..."

"Mm, yes." Chiyo unsealed the scroll. Miraculously, a bundle of clothing popped out first, then a sack of rice and some old, patchy potatoes and a small slice of boiled meat. Chiyo eyed it hungrily. Meat was extremely hard to come by, even more so than rice. "Sasori is quite proficient with seals, though not to the extent that he can be called a seal master..." She glanced toward the kitchen, where they could see Sasori moving back and forth through the doorway, working. "He didn't study sealing for kicks, or because he liked it. He did it to benefit his art."

"Puppeteering, yeah? I've heard of it. Apparently, it's a foreign speciality from Suna." Not to mention all the art battles we used to have, she added silently, a ghost of a smile appearing on her lips. She would comment no more on the subject, lest Chiyo be upset. She had a strong feeling that the art of puppeteering ran in the family. Chiyo's hand had been hard and calloused—she had callouses that could only be caused by woodwork and hand to hand combat.

A chopping sound reached Deidara's ears. Sasori must have started on the potatoes.

"Oh, it is," Chiyo confirmed. "My son and I came here from Suna seven years ago. Or was it eight? Alas, my memory ails me..." She gave a mysterious smile. "But he made quite the reputation for himself, I recall..."

A loud thunk of the knife against the chopping block, then silence.

Chiyo continued to look amused at her own anectode, while Deidara shifted in her position.

The chopping resumed.

"Well then," Chiyo said cheerfully. "I'd better get that water boiling, before your ward starts complaining."

"Yes..." Deidara stared after her as she ambled off, her footsteps silent against the tiling. "You should, un."


Lunch was ready when Deidara emerged from the bathing room, wearing a plain, cotton tomesode kimono that had once belonged to Chiyo, who had given it to her before she entered. She refused to acknowledge the meaning behind the garb. Chiyo may be old, but she knows how to scheme, Deidara thought wryly, taking a seat beside Chiyo. There were bowls and chopsticks set out in front of four seats, each with some of the rice that Deidara had brought with her. They really didn't wait, did they?

Sasori emerged from the kitchen, carrying a small plate of boiled potatoes cut into chunky, uneven bits. If he saw what Deidara was wearing, he didn't comment on it. Knowing him, it was unlikely that he hadn't noticed.

"Where's Yamanaka-chan?" Chiyo inquired as Sasori sat down on his grandmother's other side, having placed the dish in the middle of the round table.

"Doing her hair," Deidara answered distractedly. More like trying to avoid me, un. Either that, or she's trying to find a way to talk to me.

When she didn't appear in the next few minutes, they started without her. As soon as Chiyo grabbed her chopsticks, Sasori and Deidara followed, picking and grabbing at pieces of potato.

Sasori went straight to the point. "Deidara, have you heard of the Underground?"

Underground? Her confused look was enough of an answer for the man, and he chewed and swallowed a chunk of potato. The vegetable was a bland paste against his tongue, and he washed it down with a cup of hot water; each of them had one next to their bowls.

For the next hour, they shared stories of their own experiences. Deidara was relieved to hear that Rin and Izumi, her two closest female friends, were okay, and that their husbands were still kicking.

"That idiot," Deidara groaned when Sasori told her of Obito's latest 'great idea'—challenging two Tsukigakure taijutsu users at once to win extra rice. "Hopefully, he's learned his lesson, un. Obito's good, but he's facing two elites that know not to underestimate him. Any chance of him doing it again?"

"Probably," Sasori replied. "And I'm not sure if I would stop him if he did. It's not my place."

She grunted. "I wouldn't expect you to. He wouldn't let you, to begin with. Obito's not the sharpest tool in the shed, but what he lacks in the brains department, he makes up for with sheer stubbornness, un."

A footfall reached their ears, and Sasori stared past Deidara's head to see Hitomi approaching them, wearing a brown yukata that was a size too big for her. It was one of his own, Sasori realized, from when he was just a bit older than her. Perhaps eight or nine.

"Hello," Hitomi mumbled, hesitating when she noticed that the only empty seat left was the one between Sasori and Deidara. "Sorry for coming so late... that was rude of me."

"Forget it," Chiyo dismissed, "Just eat already, child, you look like the wind could blow you over at any time."

None of them mentioned that there was no ventilation in the room, instead continuing to eat quietly.

Hitomi ate like a fine lady. She took small, meager bites, chewed with her mouth closed, and even held her chopsticks like nobility. She did not sip her tea loudly, and did not leave her chopsticks lying in her rice bowl like sticks of incense.

Even so, the girl was nervous. She did not meet the gaze of anyone, and seemed to be trying her best to become invisible.

Lunch was a quiet affair, in the end.


The breeze brushed against his face, but Sasori didn't look up from his current project: the reconstruction of the puppet that Deidara had destroyed during their first spar.

He had his own workshop—technically, it was Chiyo's, but she had little use for it, nowadays—but it was refreshing to take his work outside every one in a while, and enjoy the night.

The guest room, which was occupied by Deidara and Hitomi, was right next to his workshop as well.

He was on the balcony, a table and chair set up. His toolbox sat on one end of the table, a cup of steaming hot water next to it. The latter item had been left to cool, and Sasori nearly burned himself when he reached for his calligraphy brush, stored in the toolbox in a plastic pack. There were different sizes; the one he needed was the thinnest one with the finest bristles and a pointed toe.

After coating the brush thinly with special chakra-conductive ink, Sasori took a sip from his water, now only moderately hot, as he traced the appropriate characters for an anchor seal tweaked to his own liking. Sealing was a rare art normally passed down from older generations to newer ones, and that was exactly what Chiyo and his parents had done for him.

Placing the brush down, he closed his eyes, sinking into his seat, the heat radiating from the cup warming his cold hands.

Otou-sama, okaa-san. I'm glad they are dead. Sasori took another sip, the perfect picture of contentedness. I don't want them to see this. Any of it. His brow twitched when the sound of a dog barking was abruptly cut off with a loud gunshot, leaving him to his own imagination.

Tomorrow, he had decided, he would take Deidara to the Underground, and Itachi would know what to do from there. Itachi always knew. Itachi, who cared about his family and friends, people like Sasori and Deidara and Rin and Obito. And, most likely, Sasuke, even if the little prick didn't deserve it. Sasori wasn't oblivious to Sasuke's new allegiance—he'd seen the teenage Uchiha heir stomping around the city like he owned it.

He hadn't decided what to do with Hitomi just yet. The girl was an anomaly. By all means, she shouldn't have even been alive. If he remembered correctly, Itachi had told him that Yamanaka Ino had been recovered a few weeks ago.

The sisters deserved to be reunited, sure, but Sasori needed to wait for it, and not get too ahead of himself. There could be some unforeseen consequences, and he didn't want to end up doing something that could doom them all, or flip the status quo three-hundred-and-sixty degrees on its head.

The wind blew harshly, and the calligraphy brush rolled off the table.

Sasori caught it before it landed and put it back in its place, turning his head slightly when he heard the sliding door open behind him.

Blearily, Deidara stared at him, the breeze blowing her hair gently around her face.

He turned around in his chair completely, the water in his cup moving along with him. "Wha—"

"Couldn't sleep," she cut him off. "Thought I'd get some fresh air, un." She closed the door behind her, walking forward a few steps and standing close to where he was sitting. "You?" Her blue eyes, brighter than they had been when they had reunited earlier today, drifted to the still, naked puppet in front of him.

"Simply perfecting my art," Sasori answered smoothly, taking another sip of water calmly. "If our positions were reversed, I'm sure you'd be doing the same with your... clay."

"Our positions don't matter," Deidara said haughtily, sticking out a hand-mouth tongue at him, before the sleeve of her sleepwear rolled down to reveal a clay creation clutched in her opposite hand. "You're not the only artist in the house, yeah." She leaned against his chair slightly, and Sasori could feel the natural warmth her proximity was emitting. "And don't talk like that. Like my art is beneath yours because you're blinded with your eternity. Danna, it might be a little difficult for you to comprehend, but art is an explosion." She unfolded her fingers, and the clay creature—it was a spider with six legs instead of eight—crawled onto the table, scuttling around. "It won't explode," she assured him, noticing the wary look he was giving her. "I gave it some of my chakra, but not enough for it to explode. At most..." The spider stilled, then crumbled into a fine powder, blown away by the wind. "Not exactly an explosion, but the meaning is there, un."

Very, very grudgingly, Sasori had to admit that there was some beauty in watching that happen, but if he said so, he would never hear the end of it from her. Irritable woman. "There is no meaning to that," he said flippantly, waving a hand dismissively. "There is simply no point to your art." He could have said more on the subject matter, but if he did, they'd be here all night, and Sasori was planning to turn in before the sun rose. So he drank from his rapidly cooling cup, staring out into the black horizon.

"Yare yare..." Deidara rolled her eyes, much to Sasori's amusement. "One day, Danna," she vowed, "I'll get you to respect my art, even if it kills me. You'll see."

"I doubt that."

"Yeah, I'll let you doubt," she muttered, crossing her arms and staring down at where he was sitting. "It'll be all the more sweeter when my art comes to bite you in the ass, un." Deidara passed her hand through her untied hair, pushing a few stray strands back from the right side of her face. "I think I'm going to turn in now. I'm pretty sure your grandmother likes me, but I'm also sure that she's an absolute slave driver, un."

Sasori smirked. "That's Chiyo-baa-sama for you. She's like that to everyone."

"Hmm, I noticed." She took a step backward, turning. "Goodnight—"

The door slid open, and Hitomi blinked at them, her face illuminated by the half-moon.

Deidara faltered. "Or not. Need something?"

"I...!" Hitomi swallowed. "I didn't realize that... he would be here, too. I, um..."

Sasori drained the last of his water, placing the cup down on the table with a tap.

"I'm sorry!" Hitomi predictably blurted, bowing at the waist for a moment. She lifted her head, eyes shining. "I just—I just..."

"Alright, I get it, yeah," Deidara said gruffly. "Ino. I got it."

"Yes... I didn't think I'd run into anyone—"

"Then you're a fool."

"I know, and I'm sorry. I won't do it again. Please don't..."

Sasori had a feeling that he'd faded into the background for Hitomi, who was no longer so averse to speaking up in his presence. He knew that he intimidated her. Most young kids had that reaction. What irked him most was the fact that she'd probably be taller than him when she was fully grown. Yes; he'd relish in their fear while he still could.

"Don't... leave me alone," Hitomi finished awkwardly, shuffling her feet. "I'm not sure... if I would know what to do if you did."

There was a silence as the two females stared at each other. One awkward and earnest, the other pending.

Then Deidara huffed a resigned sigh, lifting her arms. "Come here, kid."

Hitomi jumped into her arms with a small oomph, wrapping her thin arms around the older woman's waist.

"Don't ever run away from me again," Deidara said bluntly, narrowing her eyes. "Or I'll shank you, un."

"What does 'shank' mean?"

"You're a bad influence," Sasori opined, reminding them of his presence.

"Stop ruining the moment, Danna." Deidara unwrapped her arms from Hitomi and grimaced. "You can let go now, yeah. Kid. Kid. I said you can let go—"

A tiny snore sounded, and Sasori scoffed, amused.

"Oh, no, you're not pulling that fake sleeping shit on me—"

For the first time in a while, watching Deidara irritably palm Hitomi's head and push, Sasori felt genuine content overcome him, and he relaxed in his chair, turning around again to work on his puppet. The girls were gone after two minutes, leaving Sasori to enjoy the solitude.

It was nice to know, he thought absently, that despite everything, there was still something that was there. Not a memory, but something that would last for all posterity.

And it just so happened that Sasori considered that to be art.


"... And I have Udon and Tenten working over there," Iruka finished, Obito nodding along.

"Everything's in order," Obito said with a grin, giving Iruka a thumbs-up. "Great job. I knew I made a right choice when I hired you." He was still sporting a black eye, and there were multiple bruises decorating his naturally pale skin. He looked around, his face falling slightly. "I really ran this place to the ground, didn't I?" He let out a deep breath. "Maa, I guess it can't be helped."

"It's the war," Iruka told him. "The economy is in shambles." It was nothing Obito didn't already know, and the boss hummed. "Sir..."

"No," Obito said with faux cheer. "I'm not keeping this open for the money anymore. We all know that doesn't mean anything." Obito clasped Iruka's shoulder. "But look around, Umino-san. Look how..." His smile grew more strained. "Normal this is... Everyone has something to do, including me. So don't try to take that from me, you hear?" He slapped Iruka on the back good-naturedly, making the younger man choke on his saliva and cough harshly. "Now get back to work, you slacker!"

"Right, sir." Iruka cleared his throat. Something caught his hawk's eye, and he frowned. "Naruto, get down from there!"

"Come and get me then, dattebayo!"

Iruka began to sweat. Right in front of the boss?! Come on, give me a break, Naruto!

"Naruto!" another sharp voice interjected. Tenten was glaring at Naruto, who was lackadaisically sitting on top of a humming generator, cotton flying in the air as Konohamaru and Moegi cranked the cotton spinner. "Stop slacking off and get downNow."

Naruto grimaced. "Okay, okay... Sheesh, I'm coming..." Reluctantly, he slid off the squat machine and ambled over to Tenten. "You guys need help?"

Udon shook his head. "Nah, but I think," he sniffed, rubbing his nose, "Lee might."

The boy in question was vigorously cranking two machines at once with both arms, heaving. "This is great training!" Lee protested when they all shot him a look. "If I am to become good enough for Maito Gai-sama to notice me!"

"Oh god," Obito said with a chuckle. "It's a mini-Gai in the making." He shook his head. "How did he not notice this kid? He's pretty youthful, in the words of Gai."

"Naruto, go and help Lee," Iruka said sternly, pointing at the black-haired teenager. "If he throws out his back, it'll help no one."

Naruto gave him a mock salute. "On it! Hey, Bushy-Brows, slow down for a bit..."

As the orphans and the other nondescript workers spread themselves thin, Obito pitching in to help as well. Rin was here, too, but working on the other side of the room.

Lee was right, Obito mused as he spun cotton. This is pretty good training. It wasn't the first time he had helped do the hard-labor part of his business since the war broke out, but there was something oddly humbling about it each time. He wasn't so far above them anymore—no longer a king in his own empire. Now, he was just one of the little people.

Kids being kids, Konohamaru couldn't help but get a little bored spinning the same machine over and over again. So, grinning, he snatched a particularly large, fluffy cotton ball from the air.

"Eh?" Moegi stopped whirling the machine. "What'cha doing?"

Konohamaru lifted a finger to his lips, grinning. "Watch." He closed one eye and stuck out his tongue, holding the cotton ball in front of him. Then he threw it at Udon, who was scrubbing an oil stain off the floor with a dirty rag.

Of course, physics would decree that the cotton ball not make it far, but, miraculously, a breeze that blew through carried it over to Udon. The cotton ball smothered his face, and the bespectacled boy spluttered, glaring at Konohamaru, who whistled innocently, Moegi giggling beside him.

Iruka hadn't noticed yet, so Udon threw his rag at Konohamaru, who yelped quietly before snatching said rag out of the air. Triumphant, Konohamaru threw the rag at Udon, but it soared far over his head, and to the edge of the room, right next to a part of the metal wall that had been torn down by something during the night of the invasion.

Iruka was not as blind as they had thought, unfortunately. "Boys," he reprimanded, making them wilt.

Udon mumbled an apology as Naruto got a good laugh out of their scolding (before getting scolded himself by Tenten, who he had nearly elbowed), moseying over to where the rag had landed.

Stupid Konohamaru, Udon thought irritably, squatting down and grabbing the cloth. The next time he asks me how to long divide again, I ain't tellin' him. Debris moved and Udon lifted his head. Huh? What was that? Must be the wind... When he had been startled, he had dropped the cloth, and, sighing, he bent over once more.

A shadow loomed over him.

Eyes wide behind his glasses, Udon shakily looked up, hoping to the gods that it was just Konohamaru or Naruto playing a prank on him.

"Ahhh... ahhh...!" Udon trembled at long black hair and yellow slit eyes.

And Orochimaru smiled, a long tongue sliding out of his mouth. "Hello, little boy."

Udon screamed shrilly.

 

Chapter Text

As soon as Udon screamed, heads snapped upward. Udon fell back on his butt, chest heaving as Orochimaru stood over him with a look in his eyes. More shady characters fanned out behind Orochimaru—five teenagers carrying with them the same menace as the long-haired man. Udon's mouth closed and open in terror, and he scrambled backward, completely forgetting about the rag he had been retrieving.

Orochimaru stepped forward, his shoe squashing the cloth.

"Ooh, nice place," the only girl in the group said, grinning viciously. Her eyes gleamed in anticipation, and she cocked her hip to one side. "A lot of people together like this... means that there's probably food and money around here, right?"

"Man, get that greedy look off your face, Tayuya," one of her teammates said, holding his arms behind his head. He licked his lips. "Look at how thin they are. Forget the food, let alone the cash. I'd give their difficulty level a solid..." He smirked. "One."

"Fuck off, Kidomaru," Tayuya replied calmly, flicking a lock of messy red hair to the side. "Once we get out of this shithole, we're gonna need the ryo, and Orochimaru-sama brought us here, so take it up with him. I'm sure that he's right about this place; it is one of the only factories still open. Right, Orochimaru-sama?"

"Correct, Tayuya," Orochimaru purred, and the girl preened. Compliments and agreements must have been rare with the snake-like man. "Now." He looked around the room, staring at gaunt, fearful faces. "Obito-kun... why don't you come out? I know you've been itching to hit me."

There was an uncomfortable shuffling, then Obito appeared, arms seemingly relaxed by his sides. His expression was one of false warmth, and anybody who looked closely enough could see the cold fire burning in his onyx eyes.

"Orochimaru," Obito said levelly, the usual -sama that accompanied his name forgone. He scowled, shifting his weight on his right foot. "What the hell do you want?"

It was a pointless question. Obito knew what they were here for. Food and money. And they're more than willing to fight for it, Obito thought grimly. Still, if he could get Orochimaru to monologue a little, perhaps he might be able to use it to his advantage...

"Oh, it's a funny little story, actually..." Orochimaru chuckled, causing the rest of his crew to snicker along. A bead of nervous sweat dropped down Obito's forehead as Orochimaru strode up to him slowly, his hair curtaining his face. Then the snake tilted his chin upward, and their gazes met.

Obito resisted the urge to shudder. FeralDesperate. These were the only words adequate for the Hidden Snake's grandmaster. Orochimaru had been narrow to begin with, Obito remembered, but the older male looked almost shrivelled. His cronies looked slightly better, but their physical conditions were also poor for taijutsu users. At least, that's what he assumed they were. Orochimaru didn't seem like the type to waste his time on civilians. I don't even know what this bastard did to his last team... He did not remember their names, so he tried not to dwell on their fates.

"Your business is one of the only in the city that is still open," Orochimaru stated. "And the only one lucky enough to own a truck for transporting your goods."

Obito's blood chilled. He knows. Nobody was supposed to know. That truck... it was one he had bought two months before the war started and he distinctly remembered bragging relentlessly about it to whoever was willing to listen. Kakashi, mostly. It was because he would have had the honor of being the first vehicle-owner in the city. And Kakashi had listened.

His heart still ached for his friend.

But that truck. It had arrived not even a week before the night of the invasion, and the subsequent enemy occupation. He normally kept it in a garage in the back of the factory. Nobody but he, his family, and some of his workers should have known about it. Think, Obito, he urged himself. The last time you saw this truck was about five days ago, when you were drunk and delirious and alone and needed something to do. You sent it on a cotton run... I think... yeah, yeah that's right. And it never came back until

"You didn't," Obito spat hatefully, suddenly straightening.

Orochimaru scoffed at the insinuation. "Don't be ridiculous. That truck and its occupants were my only lead to you. To a place with food and money, and all things essential for living." He smiled, and Obito could have sworn the man had fangs. "If you don't believe me... Sakon." He snapped his fingers, the sound reverberating in the mostly silent room.

"Right, boss." There were a pair of twins in Orochimaru's group. One of them slipped through the hole in the wall and brought something back out. A prisoner, was Obito's first thought. No... it's...

Sakon threw the bruised man at Obito's feet, Orochimaru stepping back a bit to allow the Uchiha some space.

"Sorry, boss," the man apologized, groaning in pain and curling into himself.

... A friend.

The man was young. Not even in his twenties yet. Dark-haired, like the majority of the population in the Rain, with skin as pale as an Uchiha's. He could have passed as an Uchiha, definitely, and he...

God, Obito thought numbly, He almost looks like Daichi. No, the man—the pitiful, skinny worker, was not his son, because Daichi was at home with Hikari but

He could have been. If circumstances were different, and Daichi was older, and—

Obito knelt down, the upper half of his face shadowed as his hair—which had grown longer than he would have liked—fell over his eyes. "Maa," he murmured. "What are you apologizing for? You did nothing wrong." He helped him up, and together, they hobbled over to a woman that had been quite plump before the war. She still had some fat on her now, and she held the wounded man—boy, Obito reminded himself, boy—in her thick arms.

"Be thankful that I spared your workers," Orochimaru told him, taking satisfaction in the fact that Obito stood with his head hung. "In times like this, I could have easily slaughtered them for... other purposes."

This man was not human. He couldn't be.

"I have a deal for you," Orochimaru went on. "The goods that I have in my possession—your goods—for all the money you're keeping around here, as well as all the food. What do you say, Obito-kun? If you don't accept... I might have to take extreme measures..."

It was a deal with only one winner, and they both knew that. What was the point of it—what was the point of losing your money and your food for goods that weren't even going to bring in income? Goods that they had gotten from another local business at the other end of the city, where it was a little more rural. Goods that no one could afford, even if they needed it.

Obito almost laughed at the absurdity of it all, and was about to decline with all the politeness of a raging chimera when somebody else beat him to it.

"OI!" Naruto, who was at the front of the crowd of workers encircling them. If Obito's back hadn't been to him the whole time, he would have seen the pure anger and rage slowly contort his face into a snarl that made him almost unrecognizable. "WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?! How dare you..." Naruto's voice quietened for a second, but he was trembling now. "HOW DARE YOU COME HERE AND THREATEN US!" Spittle flew from Naruto's mouth and landed at Orochimaru's feet. "TALK DOWN TO US LIKE WE'RE NOTHING, HUH?!"

Oh boy, Obito barely managed to comprehend, he was really angry. Furious, even, at the injustice that was happening right before his eyes, filled with wrathful tears.

"YOU THINK YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH THIS?! YOU'RE NOT THE ONLY ONES SUFFERING, YOU BASTARDS!" Naruto roared. "You don't even care about other people... people who are suffering like you are..." Tears spilled out of his eyes, and he gritted his teeth. "It's people like you... It's people like you that MAKE ME SICK! So don't you dare..." he growled. "Think you can come here and threaten us like that...! This is all what we have left; we've lost things, too, y'know... You're not coming here and taking it away from us, dammit!"

"Oi, shut your mouth!" Kidomaru shouted. "Don't you dare talk to Orochimaru-sama like he's beneath you, peasant! You know nothing of our struggles!" A vein popped near his eyes, and he grinned manically. "You have no idea how hard or frustrating it is, trying to advance from one level to another. You have food and a home! You do not know suffering."

"Look," Tayuya said, scowling. "I frankly don't give a shit about your painful circumstances, kid. We didn't come here for your fucking angst. Right, Orochimaru-sama?" She looked to him again for approval, but Orochimaru did not acknowledge her this time.

"Obito," Orochimaru said softly. Dangerously. Obito tensed. "Will you accept my offer?"

"... No." Obito steeled himself for the lie. Or, rather, half-truth. "I have no money."

And Orochimaru slammed him into a steel post before Obito could even comprehend what was happening. "Do not lie to me!" he hissed. "I'm in no mood for your games. I'm here for resources, and you will provide them for me!"

His head snapped back against the steel post, and Obito winced from the chokehold Orochimaru had on him. "It's... not a lie. I really... have no money." Dammit, I'm too weak! Sasori's words of caution came back to haunt him, and he cursed himself for his carelessness. He was still recovering and too damn fragile, while Orochimaru was as healthy as he could possibly be.

"You Uchiha," Obito cringed when Orochimaru spat in his face, squeezing his neck. "I despise the lot of you. I met my defeat by the hands of an Uchiha, and I trained on the outskirts of the city to better him. It was your wretched family that led to stay in this accursed city and be caged like a bird! Led to my downfall! I was revered by Konoha! What am I now, Uchiha Obito, but a shadow of my former self?! Answer me!"

But Obito could not. Not when Orochimaru had that hold on him. But if he could...

Go to hell, Obito cursed the man silently, blackness dotting his clouding vision.

"Don't, Naruto!" Obito vaguely heard Iruka's voice in the background, trying to keep a riot from happening. "You can't!"

"Let me go, Iruka! I have to help the boss! I HAVE TO!"

And, Obito thought dizzily, wasn't it too much of a coincidence that Chihiro had disappeared just days before Orochimaru showed up? Perhaps they met... perhaps... Is that Rin?

"LET GO OF HIM!"

Rin shoved Orochimaru off her husband, heaving. "Just take it and leave us!" She threw a half-empty bag of rice—the same rice that Obito had won from Madara, Jashin curse that man—at Orochimaru's feet. "This is all we have, I swear it."

Rin, you liar, Obito fondly thought, rubbing at his neck. That would bruise.

"Is that so?" Orochimaru snatched the bag up. "This would last us all a week, at most. How pitiful..."

"Deal with it," Rin said spitefully, narrowing her eyes. "I'm sure a grandmaster like you has other means of survival than stealing from others. Others who are trying just as hard as you to survive."

"Boss!" one of Orochimaru's cronies squawked. "Are you really going to take this?"

The snake ignored him. "A week, then."

Rin's gaze grew wary. "What?"

"I'll be back in a week." Orochimaru smiled wickedly. "And if you do not surrender the rest of your food and money by then, I will forcibly remove them from you." He licked his lips. "And perhaps take a few lives while I'm at it... After all, I have my own people to satisfy..."

"I don't care for the scum you've picked up," Rin hissed hatefully. "Just leave. We've already given you what you want! So take it and go!"

"Very well. You're lucky I have a soft spot for you, Rin-chan. We'll just have to see how soft that spot is when I return... Until then, Uchiha. If you choose to run like cowards, I will not hold it against you. After all, whether you are here or not makes no difference to me." Orochimaru turned. "Come. We'll keep the goods with us for now."

And then they were gone, and so was the truck. The original occupants, formerly hostages, stumble into the factory, dazed.

Rin let herself shudder. "That bastard," she whispered. "He'll... he'll actually do it, won't he? He'll come back here and destroy us..." She looked desperately at Obito. "We cannot let that happen. We can't."

"Yeah, Rin-sama is right!" Naruto voiced, the first to recover. His eyes still burned. "Obito-sama... we're not gonna let that happen, y'hear?! If we all fight together, we can take 'em!"

Obito shook his head. "I'm afraid it's not that easy..." He sighed, sounding like the weight of the world was upon his shoulders. And, in a way, it was. "I'll do everything I can to protect all of you."

"What?!" Surprisingly, it was Tenten who shouted indignantly this time. She had her arms akimbo, and was frowning disapprovingly at Obito's defeated form. "With all due respect, we can't let you do that, sir!"

"I'm with her!" Konohamaru added. "No offense, but you're no match for that creepy guy! You'll be killed, and we can't let that happen! We have to fight!"

Obito blinked slowly as voices all around him chimed in grim agreement. "Everyone..." He turned to Rin for help, but she shook her head.

"They're right," she admitted. "You won't stand a chance against him. But..." Rin was torn, Obito could see as much. She grimaced. "It's been a while, but I'll fight with you."

"Rin—!"

"Obito, you're not going to change my mind," Rin said calmly, holding up a hand. "What kind of person would that make me, if I just let you do all the fighting for us? No, I'm staying with you and I'm going to fight."

"Ma'am," Lee said politely, raising his hand as if he were in a schoolroom and not in a dusty factory full of irate individuals. "You can't expect the two of you to defend all of us. If I am to ever be worth of notice by Gai-sama, then I will fight. The fire of youth... burns within me, and all of us!" He said it so solemnly that Obito almost did a double take.

"Bushy-brows is right!" Naruto declared. "We're all in this together. Boss, we all know you're good, and that the rest of us we'll probably never be as good as you..." He swallowed. "But train us! Train us so we can fight against that dirty snake bastard, y'hear?!"

"Train you?" Obito repeated, flabbergasted at the many nods he got. It's been so long... so long since I've trained students. Everyone from my school is either dead, in hiding, or unwilling to learn due to fear of persecution... If he agreed to train them, it would have to be in secret, or Madara might start to fear a revolt and exterminate all of them. The wild-haired man only let the rice competition run because there were few enough martial artists to not pose a huge threat. Hmm... There was this rather large private courtyard at the back of the factory, surrounded by stone walls. It was how Naruto normally escaped from doing work without anybody noticing (or so the boy had thought). Soldiers would never find them there; they only patrolled the streets. They only poked their noses into private establishments when something raised their suspicion. A lot of civilians still went out every day, because they were non-threats. That was probably how Orochimaru got by, despite the loudness of the truck. A non-military vehicle, despite how strange, meant civilians, and civilians equated to non-threatening.

"Yeah!" Naruto nodded vigorously.

Rin and Obito exchanged glances. They had nothing to lose, anyway. If they fled, their workers would most likely be slaughtered vindictively. And if they chose to flee as a single, large group... they'd never make it far enough.

No, they would have to stay. And if they stayed, everybody would stay.

And fight.

Obito took a good look at all of their earnest faces, caked with dirt, soot, and sweat. Some of them angry, most of them scared, but all of them determined. And those looks on their faces... It lit a fire in his belly.

"Alright," Obito relented, grinning as he watched all of them perk up. Konohamaru and Udon even exchanged a high-five, and Naruto whooped loudly enough for the world to hear his joy. "All of you... follow me."

There were yells of excitement as everybody followed Obito and Rin to the private courtyard.

Their hands brushed together, and Rin grabbed Obito's hand, intertwining their fingers.

"We're lucky," she murmured. "Luckier than a lot of people."

Obito had to agree.

"Naruto-nii, we did it! We're going to be trained!" Moegi exclaimed. She was one of those who paled a little at the thought of fighting the Sennin, but she got over it as quickly as a child her age would. "I swear I'll put everything into it!"

"I won't let another child go again," was Tenten's muttered promise. "Not like Chihiro."

"I'm not going to let him scare me again," was Udon's promise.

"I will make Gai-sama proud!" Lee threw his fist into the air, burning with the fiery passion of youth.

"You guys are like my family!" Naruto proclaimed to the orphans, giving them a thumbs-up. "No way I'll let any of you die, dattebayo!"

If these kids didn't make it out alive, Obito wasn't sure what he would do.


"Have you heard?" Chiyo said to Sasori that afternoon, over lunch. "Obito's factory was attacked by that Orochimaru from the north this morning."

Sasori, who had been reaching for a sliced bit of potato at the center of the dinner table, paused. "Is that so? Is everything fine?"

"Obito?" Deidara butted in. She and Hitomi were sitting beside each other today. "That knucklehead... He's okay, yeah?"

"That's Daichi-san's otou-san," Hitomi muttered to herself.

"Aa," Chiyo nodded, "He is fine. I heard from Miwa-san, who is friends with Torako-san, who works there..."

Obito. Sasori continued to eat at a leisurely pace. With his injuries, there was no way he could have escaped Orochimaru without help. I wonder what happened? And now he's training his workers?

"It's been a while since I've seen Obito," Deidara said wistfully, chewing thoughtfully on her chopsticks. "We should go see him, un." She said this to Sasori, looking at him expectantly.

Well, it had been a while since he had checked up on Obito, Sasori thought. "We can, after lunch." He glanced over to Chiyo, but since she showed no disagreement, it was decided.


A Nara was naturally lazy, but they more than made up for it with their natural superior intelligence. Shikamaru was no exception, but his emotional intelligence sometimes left things to be desired for.

So, Shikamaru was thankful that it was not he that had to handle a furious Ino. A week ago, she had come out of her stupor for the seemingly the sole purpose of lecturing all of them.

"I can't believe you!" she had shouted at Sakura and Itachi and Izumi. The former had winced slightly, but the Uchiha couple were able to keep their calm. "Why the hell didn't you stop her?!"

There really had been no excuses. The Underground Nation had just begun to form back then, and were still trying to get things running when Hitomi had left.

Now, Shikamaru exhaled, knocking on the surface of the small hut he knew Ino was staying in. It was right next to Sakura's. "Ino... It's me. Are you in there?" He hadn't dared peeked it, lest he get something thrown at his face. But when he received no reply, he took his chances. It was empty.

"Shikamaru?"

Annddd... she and Hanabi had just walked in on him standing awkwardly outside Ino's hut.

This is such a huge drag... but I need to see if she's okay. He didn't think he would be able to forgive himself if she did something drastic. He'd already been absent enough from her recovery. It was mostly Sakura and Hanabi that'd been there for her when she needed it.

Ino looked... different, to say the least. Her blonde hair, which she normally kept in a high ponytail, had been cut. She still wore a ponytail, only a much shorter one.

"Ino," he greeted as nonchalantly as he could. "I just wanted to check up on you."

"I'm not going to go berserk, if that's what you mean," Ino scoffed, Hanabi giving her an uncomfortable glance. "I've been training my ass off with Hanabi-chan—she can testify that." She paused, biting her lip. "Sorry, I... You didn't deserve that."

Actually, he thought that he kind of did, considering he'd been too scared to make her recovery time worse for her and had hardly visited her, but he kept his mouth shut.

"How's the sealing going?" Hanabi questioned in an attempt to break the ice. Pretty much everyone had heard of the seal on the steel iron doors by now, and the efforts of Itachi, Kisame, Shikaku and Shikamaru to try and unseal it.

"We're about halfway there," Shikamaru replied. "Hopefully, we'll be able to decode everything by next week, and have the ability to get the hell out of here whenever we want to."

"You really are geniuses," Ino commented, sounding envious. "Ne, Shikamaru... Do you think, that once everything's over, you'll have time to spar with me? I mean, I haven't seen you for a while..."

Goddamn, some things would never change, would they? Shikamaru had walked right into this without even realizing. He let out an exasperated groan, and Ino smirked triumphantly. "Fine, fine..." Choji's not going to be happy, but I won't get out unscathed if it's just me and her. He'd have to get the chubbier teenager to join, somehow.


When Sasori and Deidara arrived (Hitomi staying at home) at Obito's factory, it came as no surprise to them to find it void of any people. Yet, they could hear the familiar kiais coming from the back...

"Ha!"

It was like a scene from a movie. Deidara blinked slowly at the sight of Obito standing in front of rows of workers, each one of them looking an odd combination of dead serious and nervously excited as they did their best to copy the basic katas that Obito was demonstrating to them.

"Again!" Obito ordered, going through the same series of stances and moves.

There were a variety of characters in the crowd, including a woman that had once been extremely plump, a thin man with a hunched back, a skinny teenager with an almost comical receding hairline, and many more.

"Hey, Obito!" Deidara called out, announcing their presence. "It's not polite to just keep us waiting here, un."

"Deidara?!" Obito instantly fell out of his stance and whipped around, eyes wide. I can't believe it! "You..."

She held out her arms almost mockingly. "Are you just going to keep standing there?"

"DEIDARA!" Rin broke out of the rows with a wide grin on her face, sidling up next to her husband. She'd been far back enough not to notice Deidara and Sasori's almost silent arrival.

Immediately, Rin tackled Deidara into a strong hug that was more like a chokehold than anything else. Chuckling, Obito invited himself into their hug as well, wrapping his arms around both of them. All the while, Sasori stood at the side, looking faintly amused at Deidara's pleading expression. But then it dissolved into a grin and Deidara barked a laugh, pushing back toward Rin and returning the embrace.

"It's good to see you, too," Deidara said sincerely, grinning widely. "Ne, Obito, I didn't realize you took on some new disciples... when did this happen?"

"Honestly? Literally an hour ago." Obito pulled away from his wife and good friend. "Hey, Sasori, my man!" He waved at the puppeteer. "It's been a while. Why didn't you join in?"

Sasori's withering stare was enough of an answer, and Obito sniggered and reached toward him.

"Don't—" Sasori hissed before Obito brought him into the group hug. He sighed in defeat. "I hope you're happy."

"Of course I am! Two of my best friends—including one that I haven't seen in a looong time—just came to see lil' ol' me! Why wouldn't I be happy? I know you are, too, you know, you don't have to hide it!"

The four of them were pressed tightly against each other, and Sasori had to admit that he found some solace in their touch, slowly relaxing.

Obito's disciples had enough respect to simply keep practicing the katas, though they did look noticeably happier. Obito's smiles were truly infectious.

Eventually, they let go of one another.

"What's the story behind this?" Sasori wanted to know, gesturing with one arm at the mass of people gathered and training.

"Ah, well..." Obito rubbed the back of his head, frowning. "Remember that Orochimaru guy? The one that got his ass kicked by Itachi?"

Obito gave them a short summary of the events that had transpired. "And that's it. Now I've got about twenty people learning the Uchiha Style under me."

"You bet!" Naruto, who was in the front row of people, called. "I can't wait to beat Sasuke-teme with the Uchiha Style the next time I see him! His face'll be priceless, dattebayo!"

"What about you two?" Rin asked, looking at Deidara and Sasori. "How did you find each other?"

"It was pure luck," Deidara answered. "I'm staying with him now, and," she dropped her voice to a whisper, "he's taking me to the Underground tonight, to see Itachi and the others." She turned to Obito. "Got any idea where the rest of the Big 4 went?"

"Well," Obito hesitated, "I'm not sure where Gai is. He just kind of... fell of the face of the earth, almost. And for Shisui, well..." His gaze flattened. "I'm almost one hundred percent sure that he's with them."

"You..." Deidara faltered. Shisui? With the enemy? "You're kidding."

He wasn't.

Deidara let out a huff. "I can't believe...! No, there has to be a reason for this. Shisui wouldn't betray us like that, un."

"I've seen him in passing," Obito stated. "He's in Sasuke's patrol group." He eyed his disciples. "I have to get back to teaching now. I'll see you tomorrow? Maybe you can even help."

"I doubt that we'd be much help," Sasori cut in, and Deidara had to agree. After all, they were learning Uchiha taijutsu, while Sasori and Deidara had almost completely different fighting styles that they had developed on their own or with a sensei from a different country. Sasori had spent most of his childhood in Sunagakure, learning the puppet arts and the fighting style that came with it. Deidara, an Iwa orphan that had travelled to Ame a few years ago, had mostly trained by herself and had an entirely personal fighting style, much like Itachi and his Amaterasu.

Obito shrugged. "Leaving me out to hang like this? Maa, you're so cruel, Sasori. Deidara, how can you stand him?"

Deidara smirked. "Practice?" She looked around the courtyard. "You know, we don't have much space in Chiyo-baa-sama's apartment. Mind if we come here to spar, Obito?" She didn't want to dwell on Shisui's possible defection right now; training would be good for her.

"Of course we don't mind," Rin answered for her husband, Obito nodding along. "You guys are welcome here anytime."

"Well, Danna?" Deidara grinned at him. "How about it? Taijutsu only."

Sasori popped his neck, the sound satisfying to his ears. "You're on, brat." As much as he hated to admit it, he hadn't been training as much as he would have liked, busying himself with other things. "Deidara... here's to a good fight."

The rest of the afternoon went by in a flurry of blows and kiais.


Dinner was had before the sun set at the factory, and it was much louder and joyous than usual. They all sat down at rows of wooden tables, chatting excitedly, but also hurriedly eating their thin, watery congee. They all had to return home before dark; before the curfew was in play.

The sun was in the middle of setting when Sasori and Deidara took their leave.

"The Underground, huh," Obito said with a small smile. "I wish I could go, but..." He had family he cared deeply for above ground, and he could not leave them alone at night. He wasn't like Hanabi, who had an agenda other than survival.

"We understand," Sasori assured him. "As do they. Goodbye, friend. Don't do anything rash while I'm gone."

"Hah! I'll try not to. See ya, Deidara."

"Later, yeah." She gave him a mock salute. "Don't drive Rin crazy from anything that's not love."

Obito scoffed. "Just go."

Laughing, Deidara did, letting Sasori lead the way to the beer hall. It was time for Obito to leave, too. He could trust Iruka to lock up later in the night. The man actually lived in an apartment that was connected to the factory, as did a few of the workers. Unfortunately, it wasn't big enough to house the orphans as well, and, as such, they slept in the factory.

Rin left earlier before him to spend time with the children, as well as cook them dinner. It had mostly potatoes and the remaining amount of rice Obito had gotten from fighting two Tsukigakure taijutsu masters in Madara's competition.

When he returned home, the cupboards were utterly bare.

Shit.

He'd have to go out again very soon. His body was almost done recovering in his opinion, and that was enough for him. He wasn't a total fool—he'd only be fighting one this time, not two. He swore it.

"Otou-san?"

Obito nearly hit his head on the inside of the cupboard as he pulled his head out. "Itai... Daichi, is that you? Why aren't you in bed?"

Daichi shook his head in the dark room. "Couldn't sleep, that's all." He chuckled a little sheepishly. "I'm... kinda hungry? But there's nothing there, so whatever. I'll go back to sleep."

Obito's eyes grew sad, and he was glad that it was dark. "Sorry. I'll make sure that you'll be able to eat next time."

"Eh?" Daichi frowned. "Does that mean... you're gonna fight again?"

"Yes." He palmed his son's head after some fumbling around, ruffling his hair. "There's no other way. I promise I'll be careful—I won't fight two this time, or I'll never hear the end of it from your mother."

"Heh, yeah." Obito pulled Daichi into a hug, and the boy nuzzled against his shoulder sleepily. "Otou-san, you have to win, okay?"

"Don't worry. I will. Those taijutsu masters won't stand a chance against me!" Obito would not allow himself to be killed or beaten by those brutes—he was too good for that, and he knew it. This wouldn't be the first time he'd gone there. Everything would be fine—he'd win, bring back the rice, and they would all eat well.

"Good," Daichi said with finality in his voice. "Don't come back all beaten up again, 'cause that'd be really uncool, okay?"

"Ouch, kid!" Obito hugged him one last time. "Back to bed, you go. I don't want to see you until the sun is up."

"Fine, fine. Night, otou-san. Love you."

Obito couldn't help but smile. "Love you too, Daichi. I'll see you in the morning."

He'd leave at dawn, he decided, then he'd come back triumphant with a bag of precious rice before afternoon. Then he'd train his disciples, take a break to draw some pictures with his young daughter, Hikari, go back to the factory to train some more, and kick Orochimaru's ass at the end of the week with Deidara and Sasori.

That night, Daichi couldn't sleep, staring up at the ceiling and the sword that Sasuke had given him—the one that hung on his wall.


A/N: Unbeta'd as always. We die like men.

Chapter Text

 

She died silently, on a cold winter's night. There'd been no fanfare. No tears, because there was nobody left to cry them. There was a wet crunch of rainwater and pebbles, and a boot landed beside her head, squashing the halo of brown hair fanned out around her pale head. Her eyes had been closed when she died, he knew; he doubted that anyone would have come by and shut them for her in death. It was eerie, actually, how she actually looked like she was asleep. Perhaps she had been asleep when she died. There was no blood on her body.

Sasuke was glad that she had died that way. It was a most peaceful death.

"Yoohoo? Sasuke?" Shisui waved a hand in front of his face, and Sasuke blinked, trying not to let his surprise show. "Earth to Sasuke." Only Shisui would keep that humorous lilt in his voice during times like this. He wasn't smiling, however. Not today. Ashikaga, Yano, and Kagami were absent this morning, having other duties to perform, so Shisui and Sasuke had taken on morning patrol by themselves like champions. Shisui hummed softly, breathing out a small sigh through his nose as he looked upon the woman's pallid, wan face.

"Do you want to bury her?"

If he hadn't surprised Sasuke before, he most definitely did now with that... nonsensical question.

Bury her? Sasuke thought, almost incredulously. What would be the point? It wasn't as if she'd been the first corpse he had stumbled cross in the streets. Many people had been rendered homeless as a result of Tsukigakure's occupation, and many more had starved to death. Some in their own homes, most out in the cold, under the cover of the dark.

Shisui seemed to sense his unease, and squatted, peering more closely at the dead woman's face. His expression was almost completely unreadable, but Sasuke could feel his chakra moving around in distaste and... sorrow.

"Hn. Why should we?" Sasuke eventually answered, his voice flat. Why her? He hadn't even known her. She'd just been another face in the crowd—she'd been young when she died, and Sasuke could imagine her awestruck countenance as he swaggered down the streets in his police uniform, on top of the world. When she'd been alive, and healthy, and worry-free; without the lines on her face, or the puffiness beneath her eyes.

Sasuke paused before adding another fact to his checklist, She died not long ago. Likely a few hours before the sun came out. Classic starvation case. Gods, since when had there even been such a thing like a classic starvation case?

Shisui merely shrugged. "You've seemed a little lost lately. Maybe something like this can put your mind at ease."

He was basing this off a maybe? Sasuke squared his shoulders, about to make a cutting remark, when Shisui continued.

"She was beautiful, wasn't she?" He observed her, not a hint of lust or love in his eyes. More like... a doleful admiration for the young woman who had survived this long in the cold. "Probably had a family." Shisui tilted his head to one side. "Maybe a son or daughter."

"You're looking way too much into this," Sasuke reprimanded sharply. "We're wasting time. We have to make another round in this entire section of the city before we get a break."

"Then lead the way, Sasuke." Shisui stood back up again, brushing off his pants. "You're probably right." His cheerful mask was back up again, and Sasuke internally squirmed.

He and Shisui had been close when they were kids, courtesy of Itachi's connections with the both of them. Itachi had been sixteen when he'd been disowned, leaving behind a surly, confused little brother, and a reluctantly understanding best friend. Before the war, Sasuke knew that Itachi and Shisui had met whenever they could. But Sasuke...

Had thrown himself into training, fueled by bitterness and the crushing weight of responsibility.

Sasuke didn't hate Itachi. No, he wouldn't ever truly hate the man, even if he wanted to. As desperately as he denied it sometimes, at the end of the day, Itachi was still family. Even if Sasuke thought he was too kind. Too weak-willed and spineless to ever have a proper place among the Uchiha.

As for Shisui... they'd been close, but not too close, and Sasuke wasn't entirely sure what to make of him anymore. On one hand, the Uchiha elders viewed Shisui as someone to be grudgingly respected for his prowess as a martial artist, much like Itachi, but, much like the disowned Uchiha heir, Shisui was also someone to never be admired. He was irresponsibleuncaring, and selfish. Those were the same words that they had hand-picked for Itachi as well, coincidentally. At one point, Fugaku, Sasuke's father, had spoken highly of his wild, perpetually smiling cousin, who had walked around the compound with his hands tucked behind his head, and a hearty chuckle ready to escape from his throat. Somewhere along the way... Shisui had strayed from his path—or, at least, the one the Uchiha had expected him to take. Become a police officer under the Clan Head. Earn money. Become a productive member of society. Start a family to continue the Uchihas' honorable line. Retire just shy of seventy, living the rest of his days drinking tea and playing mahjong and shogi and other old man games with other members of his generation. Shisui was strange to Sasuke.

"Can't do it, can you?"

Sasuke scowled. "What are you insinuating? I'm not some weak fool—"

"Never said you were," Shisui interrupted swiftly. "I just didn't think that you were heartless as well."

Heartless? This, coming from Shisui, who still smiled and chuckled like nothing was amiss? Sasuke almost wanted to laugh at the irony of it all. "Tch, you have a lot of gall, Shisui. I never pegged you for a hypocrite."

"Hypocrite? I'm glad you think that of me." Shisui's smile was noticeably more strained, but he kept his head cool.

Perhaps, Shisui was not irresponsible, uncaring, or selfish. Perhaps, he was simply insane.

Sasuke was tensed as Shisui lowered himself again, picking up the woman's body and holding her like a bride. A dead bride, Sasuke thought morbidly. Because that was what she was, in the end. Dead. Her legs folded neatly over Shisui's right arm, and her head lolled to the side.

"There's an abandoned patch of land not too far from here. We can bury her there."

"I never agreed to this, you know. I'm your captain, Shisui."

"Yeah, and you're my baby cousin. I've changed you before." Shisui shook his head, an exasperated smile on his face. "Come on. Didn't you say that we're wasting daylight?"

And so, Sasuke begrudgingly followed him to an abandoned cabbage patch. At least, Sasuke remembered it being a cabbage patch, once upon a time. It could have been some sort of other vegetable. Maybe a radish patch.

It took longer than he would have liked, but her body ended up underground, ready to be recycled and turned into nutrients. To nurture the land, and give back to the earth what she had taken.

"That was completely pointless," Sasuke deadpanned when Shisui simply stared at the lump of dirt in front of him.

"Doesn't it make you sad?"

The question made him pause. "She is dead," he answered in the end, enunciating each word.

"Yes, but she didn't need to die, did she? Not like this. It wasn't even her fight." Wasn't even ours.

"She was a stranger."

"She was human."

"Enough," Sasuke said sharply. "I don't want to hear any of your preaching, Shisui. You accepted everything with that idiotic grin on your face. You've done nothing to save these people, so you should have nothing to say about them."

"You know," Shisui said when they were back on route. "You've done nothing to save them either. All you've wanted to do... is keep yourself alive."

Hypocrite, Sasuke thought immediately. But what kind of hypocrite had such a damn condemning stare? Shisui was either a marvelously good actor, or he truly didn't recognize the fact that he was also in the wrong. "Then you and I are the same, aren't we?"

Shisui slipped. Or, rather, his mask did. "You want my honest opinion, Sasuke? You want to know what I think? I think," he said slowly, "that you and I couldn't be anymore different."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean? Are you really going to take the moral high ground, Shisui, when you joined for the same reasons as me?" What was his problem? What? What? "That woman... you did that to give yourself closure, not me. You're a coward, Shisui."

"Maybe I am," his voice lowered, "for not doing more."

Not doing more? Sasuke wanted to demand a proper answer from the older male. But they were about to reach Obito's old mansion—and the Tsukigakure soldier's personal 'battle arena'—and it would not be wise to provoke each other in front of their... comrades. As two of the only Uchiha in the forces, they had to stick together.

They were about to keep going on their way when one of the soldiers called them over.

"Hey! Uchiha! Apparently, there's one of your own here today."

"Oh?" Shisui raised his eyebrows.

"Yeah! Why don't you come watch? You always come to see the Uchiha fights."

'Uchiha fights'. Sasuke nearly rolled his eyes. Only one Uchiha had ever come to fight, because Madara seemed to have some sense of loyalty to his family in Akatsuki, and had left their food and rations intact when storming the compound. Only one Uchiha, because...

Sasuke's breath hitched in his throat. Only one Uchiha had an excuse to fight. Only one Uchiha—one that lived away from the compound, one that was independent, and one that was certainly not Itachi because Sasuke couldn't wrap his head around his brother fighting for food.

Sasuke cursed. "Obito again?" What's that idiot doing back here?! His heart started to thrum, and he swallowed a lump in his throat. Didn't he learn his lesson the last time he came?

"Oh, is that his name?" The soldier shrugged. "You can finish your patrol after watching the fight. I'm sure Madara-sama won't mind."

And so the Uchiha entered Obito's old home, and stood upon the peanut gallery, looking down at the fighters in the ring. The ring was always surrounded by ten martial artists sitting in a seiza. Nine when there were people fighting. Ten again when the opponent—almost always a civilian man desperate to feed himself and his family—had been defeated.

With a grimace, Sasuke watched as another civilian got pummeled. Where the hell was Obito? Was he still waiting? Paranoia crept up on him again, and he turned to Shisui.

"Let's go downstairs," Sasuke said, curt. "I want a better view."

Shisui nodded, looking grim as well. They went to the lower level, where the contestants were waiting behind metal bars, faces gaunt and ashen. Mizuki's eyes followed their retreating forms. The man was always there, even when Madara wasn't. And it just so happened their general was absent today, in a meeting with other officers.

"I can't see him," Sasuke stressed, trying to discretely peer over the mass of men still waiting.

"He'll come out soon," Shisui reasoned.

So they waited.

Sure enough, Obito did come out.

The iron gate snapped shut behind him, and Sasuke almost choked when he saw a tiny body pressed against the bars, eyes wide with apprehension. Daichi. Oh God, it was Daichi. Why was he here? Did Obito even know that his son had followed him to this hellhole? A string of curse words found themselves at the tip of Sasuke's tongue, but he swallowed them back. No. No, he couldn't bring attention to himself and the boy.

Obito glanced over to Shisui and Sasuke as he went up to the arena. Uncomprehending. Uncomprehending of why his beloved relatives were on the other side of the war. Sasuke kept his face stoic, Shisui's presence beside him a small comfort.

The fight unfolded right before their eyes, Obito and the Tsukigakure taijutsu user clashing fiercely. Obito fought with all his heart, never hesitating to strike unfair blows or pressure points.

Every time his opponent threw him on the ground, Sasuke's heart would jump to his throat in disquiet, even when Obito got back up. His eyes flicked to the side, trying to gauge Daichi's reaction. But the boy only had half his attention committed to the fight. The other half...

Was focused on him.

What was that look in his eyes? Sasuke wondered, his fingers curling and uncurling around his sword. The very same one he used to spar Daichi with, under the watchful eye of his parents. It was like the look that Obito had given them. As if he didn't understand why Sasuke was standing with the enemy. There was so much bewilderment, and even... a mild betrayal.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes, gaze flinty. A small price to pay for survival, he told himself. He refused to convince himself otherwise. Daichi was just another ryo in the bundle he had offered to his Taishō in exchange for a life worth living.

"He's going to win," Shisui opined when Obito punched his opponent square in the nose, making the other man grunt and flip backward. A relieved smile reached his face. Sasuke thought that it was the most genuine one he had seen from him—or anyone—in a while.

Obito would win. Because Obito had something to fight for. A family. Friends. Heck, even the workers at his decrepit factory if the city's fractured gossip network was anything to go by. Obito would not lose this match; he would not lose this battle.

It was a blow to the temple that knocked his opponent out. Obito stood, a lone figure in the ring, surrounded by three-quarters of a dozen of Tsukigakure martial artists. They were formidable, no doubt, but Obito had pulled through.

A small, relieved noise made its way up Sasuke's throat.

Everything was going to be okay. Obito would leave with a bruised face and limbs, but there would be a bag of rice in his arms, and he would smile at Rin's worried exasperation, and hug Hikari when he got home, and scold Daichi fiercely when he found out what he had done—

Click.

The sound was intimately familiar. It was the whisper of a past and present lover, one that had enticed him in the past and would continue to do so in the future. It came with an artful explosion, and was a tool of apathetic precision. It was so many things at once, and Sasuke felt time itself freeze for one brief moment.

He barely had time to even move when—

Bang!

Obito slumped forward, his eyes wide and filled with the sort of bewilderment that made Sasuke's wretched heart twist painfully.

"Geez," Mizuki drawled, the muzzle of his pistol smoking. "I really hate arrogant bastards like you."

Obito choked on the blood rapidly filling his lungs and rising in his throat, collapsing front-first onto the mat. The nine conscious Tsukigakure warriors looked on impassively, not even twitching in their seiza.

"O... Otou-san?"

Sasuke had never felt so helpless in his life. Had never felt so helpless when he whipped his head around to see Daichi with one faltering arm reaching through the iron bars. The boy was staring at something that was far away.

Desperately, he looked toward Shisui. The older Uchiha's face was completely pale, and continued to whiten further, as if it was he who was bleeding out in the ring and not Obito. Sasuke absently wondered if he looked the same.

The men behind the iron bars had been stunned into silence.

"OTOU-SAN!"

He was screaming now. Why was he screaming? Sasuke stared off into the distance, unable to fully process everything that was happening around him. The boy was shaking the bars now, as if that would let him through. Tears peeked out at the corner of his eyes as the child screamed for his father.

His father—Obito.

Obito.

Without saying anything to Shisui, Sasuke leaped forward, landing in front of Obito. He did not draw his sword and point it at the Tsukigakure martial artists. He did not remove his gun and aim it at Mizuki. He did not shout. He did not scream. He felt... like he'd been submerged underwater. Noise reached his ears, but he did not comprehend.

"S-Sasuke..." Obito weakly lifted his head, one hand clutching the wound that had shattered his ribs and pierced his lung. He was bleeding out rapidly.

What had Sakura called it? Hemorrhage.

"Sasuke?"

"Sasuke..."

"SENSEI!"

"Sorry, cousin," Obito wheezed when he hacked up blood on Sasuke's uniform.

"Don't speak," Sasuke heard himself say, putting Obito up in a more comfortable position. His cousin's eyes were slowly glazing over—he was dyingdyingdying—and there was so much noise. Yet, Sasuke could only hear one voice clearly through the haze.

Obito wanted to say something. Sasuke really wish he didn't. "Sasuke... Rin... I..."

"You love her," Sasuke rushed him along, his voice breaking slightly. "You love her, I got it. I'll tell her. Shut up, Obito. Obito-dobe." His eyes burned with a sensation that was familiar but not familiar, and he squeezed them shut, tears sprouting beneath his eyelids and clinging to his eyelashes.

Obito choked out a sound, and Sasuke knew that he had wanted to laugh. Obito was like Shisui in that respect. They found humor in the strangest, most dire things. "Daichi..."

Sasuke's eyes snapped open again, and the world was so much clearer. He could see every detail; every aspect. He could see the way the corners of Obito's eyes crinkled as he smiled through the pain; he could see how his eyes were clouded in agony and, perhaps, delusion. He could see the small, bloody hole the bullet had left in the fabric of his cousin's clothing.

"Look..." Sasuke could see the muscles in Obito's eyelids twitch as his eyes drooped shut.

"Please shut up," Sasuke whispered, breathing rapidly. "Obito-dobe, shut the fuck up. Please."

"No." For a dying man, Obito's voice was surprisingly sharp. Then again, Obito had never taken to being silenced well. "This... is a huge m-mess... But, Sasuke..." He coughed again, and panted heavily. "Look after him, y-yeah?"

Sasuke wished he hadn't looked. He really, really wish he hadn't looked. But his eyes traveled to the side to see Daichi's face contorted with grief, snot and tears flowing down and past his cheeks and lips. His shoulders shook with every sob—every breath.

Sasuke had almost forgotten what pain felt like, but his Sharingan—was it? His father would have been so proud—made sure that he would never, ever forget what pain was. He would know pain, and pain would know him.

"Now kill me."

"W-what?" He hated how he stammered. Uchiha weren't supposed to stammer. They weren't—they just weren't

But Obito's eyes—he had his Sharingan turned on as well. Sasuke failed to see any poetic justice behind this—bore into his. Desperate (wasn't everyone desperate these days) and pleading. Kill me, he mouthed. Make it quick.

With trembling arms—Uchiha weren't supposed to tremble either—Sasuke held Obito's head up, loosely cradling the taller Uchiha, who was still very much sprawled on the floor and bleeding

Gun or sword? Gun or sword? Gunorsword?

Sasuke reached down.

And Obito choked on his final breath as the slender blade of Sasuke's katana slipped through his heart and nicked his spine.

Obito had never quite taken to guns.

"Excellent work, Sasuke, though surprisingly merciful of you," Mizuki hummed. "I would have liked him to bleed more."

Sasuke almost flinched. He'd all but forgotten about the adviser's presence. He looked over to Daichi, his gaze detached. There was a newly born fury on his face. One that did not belong on any eight year old. It was type of fury that was so overwhelming, Sasuke doubted that the boy had even noticed that he was trembling. It was the kind of fury that was disbelieving, but very much real. And it came from grief that hadn't quite caught up with him yet.

His head ached. His head ached so, so much. Was this a side effect of the Sharingan? Or was it something else?

Shisui helped him up. At least, he thought it was Shisui.

When Sasuke glanced to the gathering of men behind the iron bars again, Daichi was gone.


"Oh, there you are," Chiyo said when Sasori and Deidara returned, the latter looking more solemn than Chiyo had seen her so far. "Stayed the night at the Underground, did you? Was it filthy?"

"Quite," Sasori said shortly, obviously not in the mood for small talk. "Baa-sama, is Hitomi around?"

At that, Chiyo snorted. "Locked herself up in the guest room. She said that she was 'training'. I took a peek in and she's reading a medicine textbook from one of my shelves. Mind you, it didn't seem like she was absorbing anything." Chiyo pointed to her crinkled eyes. "Eyes were glazed over. Unfocused."

Deidara elbowed Sasori discretely, and the man rolled his eyes, a bead of sweat falling from his temple. Chiyo raised an eyebrow when Deidara all but dragged the old woman's grandson into the next room—his room. "Well," she muttered, smirking. "I'm not exactly complaining."

"We have to tell her, un." Deidara closed the bedroom door behind her, turning around to face Sasori, who was standing with his arms crossed. "You know how many times she's nearly gotten herself killed for Ino?"

"That's exactly why I don't want her to know," Sasori refuted stubbornly. "She'll beg us to bring her to her, and if we refuse, she'll take off again. The Yamanaka—Ino—isn't ready. She's practically functioning full-time on adrenaline and self-righteous anger—"

"Self-righteous?!" Deidara hissed, bringing their faces closer together as she leaned in. "She was raped, you insensitive prick!" Nobody in the Underground had ever explicitly mentioned it, but Deidara could connect the scattered dots well enough to make a full picture. "She needs Hitomi. They need each other. Why can't you see that?"

"She'll crash sooner or later," Sasori stated solemnly. "Brat, don't fight me for once. We'll reintroduce them when Ino appears to be more... mentally stable."

"Danna...!"

"Brat."

Their gazes burned as they stared down each other, both of them unrelenting. But, eventually, one broke.

"We should focus on one thing at a time for now," Sasori told her, reluctantly, "We'll take her to see Ino at the end of the week. Right now, we should prepare for Orochimaru's assault."

"Fine," Deidara grudgingly agreed. "Speaking of, Obito should be training them soon. They start in the morning, an hour or two before noon." She breathed out, leaning against the door. "We should start on lunch, un. What's on the menu? Boiled potatoes or steamed potatoes?" Her voice was dry when she listed the options.

Sasori allowed a little smirk to reach his lips. "Which do you prefer?"

"Tch!" Deidara made a face, scrunching up her nose. "I don't have a preference. They're both equally disgusting." They exited the room, and Deidara cast a furtive glance at the closed door of the guest room. "If—when all of this is over, I don't think I'll be eating any spuds for a while..."

For once, Sasori had to agree with her, nodding. "Boiled, then. Personally, I find them a little more tolerable than steamed ones."

Chiyo was nowhere to be seen, and they suspected that she had gone to the guest room to accompany Hitomi. Perhaps help her understand some of the complex medical jargon.

So Deidara and Sasori took to the kitchen, each of them doing their own thing and working in almost perfect tandem. Sasori sliced the potatoes deftly while Deidara prepared the rice, sorting out the appropriate portions for each person.

She put the rice on the kamado stove as Sasori washed the chopped up slices of potato in the low sink with practiced ease.

"Need any help?" she offered.

Sasori paused. "You could cut the rest."

"On it, un."

Silence prevailed as Deidara leisurely chopped the potatoes, passing them to Sasori to wash and put in a pot on the ground.

"Deidara."

Deidara didn't stop cutting, and Sasori didn't stop washing.

"Yeah?"

"When you were living alone..." Sasori hesitated, wracking his brain for what to say. "You weren't assaulted, were you?"

"Assault—? As if," Deidara scoffed, but there was no malice or scorn in it. "Why?"

The potato slice nearly slipped out of Sasori's grip, and he scowled. What an uncomfortable question... "When you yelled at me before about the older Yamanaka's... You know what." He closed his eyes, breathing out silently. Then he opened them again, staring sternly at Deidara, who was openly gazing at him, the knife raised above the chopping board slightly.

Then she smiled. It was a very small one, and more reminiscent of a grimace, but it was a smile nevertheless. "You can relax, then. Nothing like that happened to me, un."

He nodded, tearing his gaze away from her and once again focusing on the potato slices in front of him. "Good. As a general consensus, females are irritating—"

"Danna, I have a knife."

"—but I would never wish that kind of thing upon any woman," he finished levelly, as if Deidara had never spoken.

She didn't know why, but she felt a sudden surge of appreciation for him. Despite the casual misogyny, it was his own way of letting her know that he cared. "Well, that's good, yeah. Because if you did," she slammed the knife down, grinning wildly at him, "I'd have to put your grandmother's beloved blade to good use."

Sasori was unfazed, though there was a ghost of a smile playing on his lips. "You wouldn't be the first." He gestured to multiple slits in the kitchen walls. "Sometimes, baa-sama enjoys playing games."

"Hmm," Deidara hummed. "Do you enjoy them? These games?"

"It's a surprisingly good way to unwind," he answered honestly.

"Ah, that's good, un."

An easy silence fell between them again, and lunch was complete before they knew it. The smell of boiled potatoes and rice brought Hitomi and Chiyo out of the guest room.

Chiyo made a dry remark about their bland meal before they all sat down at the dining table. Hitomi was looking noticeably perkier, a content smile on her face as she devoured her food with all the finesse of a noble lady.

"Just use your hands," Deidara told her after watching the child try and fail to pick up a slice of particularly slippery potato.

"My hands?" Perhaps, once upon a time, Hitomi would have scoffed at the idea and flounced on her way. But now, she paused, considering the thought. Hesitantly, she put down her chopsticks and pinched the vegetable between her thumb and her pointer finger. Then she placed it in her mouth, blinking at the wetness on her fingers. "That wasn't... so bad, I guess. But wouldn't wanna do that if I didn't have to."

"Tsk, you priss," Deidara commented, quirking her lips upward. "Once we kick Orochimaru's ass, I might have to start beating some more sense into you, un."

To her surprise, Hitomi grinned widely. "Bring it on, sensei!"


"Aaah," Deidara yawned, stretching as she and Sasori walked to the Nohara-Uchiha factory. "That was a good meal. You know, you're not a bad chef, Danna."

They arrived at the factory an hour before noon, but, to their surprise everybody was still working and not training.

"The hell?" muttered Deidara, glancing around. "We should find Rin..."

"Um, excuse me?" a brown-haired teenager hesitantly approached them. "Neither Rin-sama nor Obito-sama are here today." She dipped her head hastily. "Sorry about the inconvenience."

"Not here today?" Sasori echoed, suspicion crawling at the back of his mind. Has Orochimaru already struck? No, that can't be it. This was only the first day since Orochimaru's warning, and if he really had changed his mind, it would have been a massacre. The teenage girl standing in front of him would be nothing but a corpse, not a living, breathing creature.

The brown-haired girl—she wore her hair in twin buns—was holding some sort of pole that was used for beating cotton. "I thought you would know where they went," she said slowly, unease evident in her eyes. "But apparently not, huh?"

Just then, the sliding door opened, letting in more sunlight than the hole in the wall did. Rin stood at the doorway, looking haunted. She held both of her children by each hand, both of them looking equally as worn as their mother, and Deidara started toward her.

"There you are! Where's Obito, un?" Deidara stopped in front of her, frowning when Rin seemingly didn't hear her. "Rin...? I—"

"He's dead." Her voice was so soft that Deidara almost didn't hear her.

"Rin, what are you—"

Rin lifted her chin, and Deidara thought that she had never seen her friend look so utterly helpless before. "D-Deidara... Obito's dead. They killed him."

There was silence. Nothing but a shocked silence.

Then Hikari began to cry, loudly sobbing.

Chapter Text

"Obito's dead," Rin spoke, her voice hollow with grief and disbelief. "They killed him."

For Deidara, the world stopped for a second, then started again. That's absurd, she wanted to say, because of course Obito wasn't dead and Rin was just mistaken and

A small hiccup escaped from Hikari's quivering lips, and the girl began to sob. Loudly. The noise carried a bone-deep ache to it, and Deidara's heart twisted painfully as she watched a little girl mourn her father. The air was heavy with hopelessness, and Deidara swallowed, throat parched.

She couldn't see him, but Deidara knew that Sasori was shocked as well. The distress in his chakra spoke what words or actions couldn't, even when he struggled to level it, knowing that those with adequate enough training could feel it. Like her. It snapped her out of a daze, and the reality of the situation slowly began to seep into her blood and her veins, like a disease.

Hikari continued to cry, even when Rin scooped her up and cradled her in her arms, the woman's narrow face ashen.

Daichi simply stood at his mother's side, unmoving. His eyes weren't focused on Deidara, who he hadn't seen a very long time. They weren't focused at all, actually. But when Hikari's voice reached a new high, his eyes flickered red, and Deidara recoiled, hissing through her teeth.

Behind her, Sasori exhaled harshly.

There was a muffled sob from Rin, and tears dripped down her cheeks as she buried her face into the back of Hikari's shirt, wetting the fabric as her frame shook.

"D-dead?" the girl with the twin buns echoed Deidara's thoughts. For one brief moment, Deidara turned around, just in time to see a myriad of emotions pass through her expression.

The noise of the factory had died down, the only sound being Hikari'a loud wailing and Rin trying to hold it together for her children.

The back of her eyeballs stung with a sensation that she hadn't felt in a while, and Deidara took a deep breath, trying to calm her racing heart. Quickly, so Rin wouldn't see her own tears, Deidara closed the distance between them, embracing Rin—and Hikari—tightly.

Now that the little girl was pressed between them, Rin freed one hand and used it to grab the fabric on Deidara's back, twisting her fingers in the material frantically as if her friend would be torn away at any moment.

"L-let it out," Deidara mumbled, a twin trail of tears cutting through the slight layer of dust on her cheeks. I'm sorry, Rin.

Sasori watched them for a little longer before turning his brown gaze to Daichi, who hadn't spoken a word or made a sound since they'd arrived. "Child," he said slowly, and Daichi lifted his head, Sharingan spinning. Sasori paused, before amending, "Daichi. How did this happen?"

He tried not to look too shocked when Daichi's face contorted in anger. "They shot him," he whispered hatefully, stepping closer to Sasori. "He won and they shot him!"

From the way his voice fluctuated, Sasori couldn't even begin to imagine what the worst part was, because Daichi obviously hadn't gotten to that part yet.

"But he was still alive." Daichi's voice cracked, and he furiously rubbed at his eyes. "M-maybe he would have lived if—if—!" He bared his teeth at Sasori. "Sasuke killed him, okay?! He killed him! He killed my dad."

Sasori's blank mask cracked ever so slightly when the anger faded from Daichi's eyes, leaving behind a broken, lost boy. He's only eight. The image of Obito proudly presenting his shy, curious son to him had his entire body numb, save for a prickly sensation crawling beneath his skin. It was almost like what Itachi had said. Like he was burning, and he didn't even feel it. An eight-year-old isn't supposed to know what losing a parent feels like. That just wasn't... right. It was a feeling that many of them knew—him and Deidara included—and Daichi had just been the latest name added to the ever growing list.

"Why would he do that?" Daichi demanded, his eyes desperate and searching.

"Do what?"

Sasori had to curse Uzumaki Naruto's timing. Thankfully, the boy didn't seem as loud or overbearing as he normally did, instead having a small, confused frown on his face.

"What happened?" Naruto was asking. "I went to the bathroom and now, suddenly, everyone's crying..." He looked around uncomfortably.

"Obito-sama passed away," Tenten said lowly.

Naruto's eyes widened. "What?! But, how?!"

Sasori was about to tell the boy to please shut the hell up because you're not helping with anything here but Daichi beat him to it, his Sharingan whirling faster than ever.

"It was Sasuke!" he cried vehemently. "He could have saved him, but he didnt!"

"Sasuke-teme?" Naruto reeled back, shocked. No way. Sasuke's a bastard but he... he'd never kill anyone! He was sorely tempted to tell Daichi that, but something about the boy stopped the words from ever coming out.

Deidara pulled back from Rin, trying to calm down. As much as she regretted it, they didn't have time to grieve. This factory was next on Orochimaru's hit list, and now that Obito was gone... Her stomach flipped. These barely trained civilians would be slaughtered like sheep if something wasn't done. Shit, Obito, she thought frustratedly. Do you have any idea what kind of mess you've made? It wasn't fair to be angry at a dead man, she knew, but an outlet was needed, and Obito provided one. Even in death, Obito had earned Deidara's ire for massively screwing up.

Hikari's sobbing and died down to a quiet sniffling, and Rin was taking deep breaths, trying to recompose herself. Deidara knew that Rin had come to the same conclusion as her: they didn't have time. Tears could be shed later—right now, they needed to pick up immediately where Obito had left off.

So Deidara dried her tears and turned determinedly to Sasori. "Danna," she said bluntly, "there's no way we're leaving them here to fend for themselves, un. She paused. "I remember you told me once that you'd never take on disciples. And maybe that was fine, yeah, when there was still peace." Her eyes hardened. "But this is a war now, and we can't just sit around anymore. We need to do something, un."

Disciples. Yes, that would be the next course of action, wouldn't it? Sasori resisted the urge to bite down. That would only cause him headaches, and this entire affair was already headache-worthy enough. It was all because of this war. It was forcing him to come out of his shell again and... he didn't like having his hand forced. But his duty as a martial artist called, and if he didn't answer, these innocent civilians—his friend's, Obito's, workers—would be at the mercy of Orochimaru. So he reined in his reluctance and met Deidara's gaze. "Aa. We can't afford to waste anymore time," he looked around, taking each and every one of their faces, "All of you, to the back. Now."

The moment relief passed through her cobalt eyes, he knew he had made the right decision, even if he would curse himself during the night, when he was alone.

They led the way, proud and strong and refusing to let this get the better of them. Maybe, when they were in solitude, they would grieve, but for now...

Rin swallowed when she realized just what they looked like.

Soldiers marching off to war.


Tenten felt like she was spiralling in a tizzy, if she were to be honest. Just this morning, she had scrubbed the faces of her fellow orphans clean and had gotten to work, sorting and beating cotton alongside other workers.

Everything had been fine. Naruto had been being obnoxious (as usual), Lee had been raving on about how majestic Maito Gai was (as usual), and Tenten had been the one to reel them in and get them to work (as usual).

Orochimaru had threatened them yesterday, but with Obito leading them, she had thought that they might have stood a chance. But now he was dead and... Tenten shook her head. Everything would still be fine.

Now, Tenten stood performing katas, sandwiched between two workers that she had exchanged words with on some occasions. They were different from the ones that Obito had taught them, but that was to be expected. It had never been explicitly stated by anyone—or perhaps nobody vocal enough had caught on—but Tenten knew that the plan was to completely overwrite Obito's training with their own.

Before the war, the gossip mill had been going full-force, and Tenten had worked in a place where it was busy almost every hour of the day. According to the grapevine, Deidara of the Big 4 and the grandson of the chicken rice store owner, Sasori, had found a kindred spirit, a rival, and a training partner in each other. Which meant that they were familiar, which, in turn, meant that they could find a way to mix and match aspects of their style to suit them.

The Uchiha focused more on offense, Tenten thought absently as she threw a clawed hand in front of her, a few inches away from the back of the man in front of her. I can see a bit of the Uchiha Style in their movements, mainly from Deidara, but other than that, their styles are almost completely based on defense. It probably came with being largely reliant on long-range attacks, Tenten deduced.

About two rows from her row, Tenten could see Lee struggling to grasp the taijutsu styles of the two artists. He was a rough, unpolished fighter, even if he tried so hard to develop his own personal taijutsu style. Being who they were, they'd never had opportunity to seek out guidance, not when they spent nearly every waking moment of their lives working. She'd had a feeling that once Lee saved up enough money to survive by himself, he would have left the factory to pursue Maito Gai's teachings. But that'd been a long time ago, and the war was draining his spirit away.

It was early evening when Sasori and Deidara finally stopped. But before they could go, Sasori spoke up.

"Keep training," he told them, and if Tenten hadn't known any better—if she hadn't seen the low flame in his brown eyes and the firm determination in his jaw—she would have thought that he had reached complete ataraxy. "Even when you're working—surprise yourselves; practice with your friends and comrades and never stop. Your hard work will not betray you, and neither will we."

"Danna's right." Tenten found her to be a little more relaxed than Sasori, but still tense. "Don't get complacent, un." Her lips quirked upward in a small, tired smile. "We'll see you all tomorrow."

And they were dismissed, all of them chattering amicably, if a little nervously, among themselves. Most of them planned to eat dinner and go home straight away. Tenten saw Daichi and a sleeping Hikari be taken home by Rin after the latter female exchanged words with Sasori and Deidara, voices low.

"Tenten?"

It was Iruka.

Tenten nodded. "Yes? Did you need something, Iruka-san?"

He gave her a sheepish, apologetic grin and held up a broom with a bamboo handle and grass like strands. "Just that it's your turn to be sweeping up the precinct. I'll save you some dinner."

Tenten chuckled. "Pass it here, Iruka-san. Also, could you hold the beans? They don't react that well to my stomach."

"Will just congee do?"

"Sure. I'm not that hungry anyway."

She thanked Iruka before taking the broom from him and moving methodically around the courtyard, humming a tune that only she could hear as she swept. At one point, a huge cloud of dust came up and made her cough and cover her mouth, momentarily lifting the broom up vertically. It was then she paused, gauging the weight of the cleaning instrument.

"Tenten! Look what your father and I got you!"

"What is it, okaa-san? Is it more shuriken?! Is it, is it?!"

"Haha, not this time. We thought that you might like to try something different, princess."

"Huh? What? Oh my gosh, is this a bo staff?! Thank you so much! I love you! Wow, this is so cool; my very own bo staff!"

Tenten blinked, memories falling out of her eyes. Letting out a small breath, she used her free hand to wipe her eyes, muttering about how the dust lying around was a hazard.

She started humming again, absently whirling the broom in her hands. Eventually, she gave in to the temptation.

"Screw it," she muttered, spreading her feet wide and going through a series of movements with the broom. Sometimes, the bristly end would whack her in the face—that was what she got for practicing with a broom of all things—but she made it work. The clouds turned blue and indigo as the sun set behind the clouds, going to bed behind a horizon that Tenten would never be able to see.

Tenten whirled through her katas comfortably, despite having not trained in a while. Her parents had both been martial artists in their prime, and had, upon retiring, had made weapons for a living, up until their death. Sometimes, Tenten found herself joining Lee and giving him a few pointers (though she stopped once she found out that he was not suited for the motions of the style she used). She always felt awkward and unbalanced when she practiced without some sort of weapon in her hand, which was pretty much all the time. It'd been hard to find someone that would sell a sixteen-year-old girl a nice weapon for a low price. It was even harder now, considering everything that had happened.

She had just finished and was going to continue with her yard work when a voice sounded from behind her, startling her.

"That was pretty good. I didn't know that you had martial arts training, un."

Deidara.

Tenten turned around, trying to seem nonchalant. "It's not really something I like to advertise. Besides, I'm not that good." Certainly not good enough to fend off that snake-man at any rate.

"I'll be the judge of that." Grinning, Deidara crossed her arms. "Why don't we have a spar, right here and now?"

Tenten did a double-take. "With m-me?"

"Well, obviously." Deidara took a look around before spotting an abandoned broom sprawled precariously between two buckets. It was one that Naruto had left without ever picking up, distracted by the notion of lunch. She picked it up and examined it briefly before spinning it around in her fingers. "Just a warning, when you have Shisui as a friend, you tend to branch out a lot in weaponry, if only for a little bit. So no holding back, yeah. If you're really as bad as you say, then you shouldn't need to be going easy anyway." She lazily twirled the broom a few more times before pointing the non-bristly end at Tenten. "Do you accept my challenge?"

Tenten swallowed a lump in her throat. Before she knew what she was saying, she agreed, "Fine. But just a quick spar, like you said. Winner has to land three debilitating mock blows on the other before they do."

The two teenagers—it was a strange notion; Deidara was only a few years older than her, but she was so much stronger and respected—faced off against each other, blue eyes meeting chocolate brown.

The evening winter breeze blew, sweeping up some more dust, and Deidara launched toward her. Eyes widening, Tenten blocked Deidara's blow with her own broom, the bamboo handle shaking under the immense strain that Deidara was putting on it. Teeth gritting, Tenten pushed back and moved the broom in such a way that it forced Deidara to shift her weight and skid back.

With a guttural cry, Tenten took the opportunity to attack, lashing out at Deidara with a whip-like strike. Deidara barely had time to block it, but she did, and their foreheads nearly bashed together. They continued like this, with one of them attacking and defending then vice versa. Their brooms knocked together constantly until Deidara huffed lightly—Tenten had pressed the handle end of her broom above Deidara's sternum.

"One," Tenten counted.

"Tsk, don't get cocky, yeah."

Tenten spluttered when Deidara struck at her ankle with her foot, causing her to buckle. When she finally gathered her bearings, Deidara had her broom hanging just above the younger girl's skull.

"One," Deidara mocked, and Tenten pushed herself up with a grunt, glaring. "What? You never specified the battle to be weapons only, un. An oversight like that is going to get your ass knocked." She smirked. "Kinda like what just happened."

"Are you done?" Tenten bit out, annoyed at having been had. "Enough talk—let's fight!" Her blood was boiling in her veins now, and she was eager to land another 'hit' on the older girl.

"If you like," Deidara mock-demurred, coming her way again.

As they engaged in battle once again, Tenten noticed that Deidara's prowess with a staff—broom, whatever—was not as good as she had thought. Now that she had gotten a good, proper look, she could spy many holes in the blonde's attacks. Inwardly smirking, she immediately took advantage of the gaps.

Deidara blinked in surprise when she felt the cold bamboo of Tenten's broom pressed against the side of her neck. Had this been a real fight, Tenten could have snapped her neck right then and there with the right amount of force. Not bad, she thought, a little in awe at the girl's ability.

"Two." Tenten's tone was decidedly smug.

"Yeah, yeah," Deidara grunted, no longer looking so haughty. "Again."

In the end, Tenten took the third point when she 'split the skin' on Deidara's shin. They were both panting slightly, Tenten looking more worn than Deidara. Why had they fought again? She'd completely forgotten.

"Tenten—right?"

Tenten straightened. "Yeah."

"I take it back," Deidara said solemnly. "You're not good, un."

Well, Tenten thought indignantly. I just beat you three to one, so you don't have any room to talk! She was going to say just that, when Deidara smirked.

"You're damn good. I almost feel sorry for Orochimaru and his cronies."

Tenten relaxed at that, then tensed up again. Was she seriously implying that Tenten could take on Orochimaru and survive? Yeah, right; she'd seen what that thing had done to Obito—she didn't stand a chance.

"It was a nice fight," Deidara said, propping her broom up against the stone walls. "I wish I could help you improve, but I don't have anything to teach you." Her voice took on a dry tone. "Which I'm sure you've noticed, yeah, considering how thoroughly you crushed me. The only hit I got on you was because of a cheap shot." She paused, her the light in her eyes dying a bit. For the first time, Tenten saw her as what she truly was: a tired nearly-adult who, along with her red-haired partner, held the lives of others in her hands. "I hope you live, un. I really... hope you do."

"Yeah, well," Tenten sucked in a breath, "I've made it this far." It was the best she could offer, especially how she had been made aware of her own mortality just yesterday by Orochimaru. It was one of the few times where she had thought that she was actually going to die.

"Un." Stretching her arms, Deidara yawned. "Well, I've got somewhere to be, and Danna doesn't like to be kept waiting." She mock-saluted her. "We should do this again sometime."

"If you're that keen about losing, then bring it on." Tenten couldn't help but grin, forgetting all about the grimness of today and the world for one brief moment.

Deidara's eyes flashed. "Hmph. We'll see, Tenten."


Sakura looked decidedly unimpressed when Deidara flopped across the bar counter while Shikamaru locked up, grumbling about how troublesome it was to have such a complicated series of locks on the door, especially since those idiot soldiers never seemed to notice who came in and out, even past curfew.

"Okay," Sakura lifted her gaze to meet Sasori's mildly exasperated one, "what's up with this one?" She jerked her thumb at a groaning Deidara, who seemed to be hungover despite not having touched any alcohol at all.

"'This one'!" Deidara sneered at her.

"This one," Sasori answered, ignoring Deidara's protests, "just got her ass handed to her by a girl three years her junior. And now she's moping."

"Dan-na!" The blonde flashed an accusing gaze at the puppeteer, who was completely unconcerned. "I shouldn't have ever told you, un!"

"This is a happy reunion and all, even though we saw you guys last night," Shikamaru said as he slid over to them. "But mind taking it downstairs?"

They didn't mind, and allowed Shikamaru and Sakura to lead them to the cellar and even further below, where the Underground lay. They must have remembered their reason for visiting, because their faces slowly fell and they set their mouths into hard lines.

A shiver ran down Shikamaru's spine. Bad news. This was extremely troublesome. Like that seal on the wall and pretty much everything else wasn't already bad enough news—these two just had to bring more? But Shikamaru had never been a fan of shooting the messenger, so he kept his mouth shut.

The first face they saw in camp was Kisame's, slowly eating out of a can of something that he had scrounged up from somewhere. His bandaged sword, Samehada, was by his side, as usual.

"Yo," Shikamaru greeted, lifting his hand lazily. "Look who's here."

"Sasori!" Kisame smirked at the sight of the red-haired man and his blonde companion. "And, hey, I've seen you around, too. Last night and before all the shit happened. Deidara, right?"

"Mm. And you're Hoshigaki Kisame." Deidara returned the smirk. "Geez, you're a lot less uptight than before, master."

The shark-man shrugged. "The club I opened is long gone now, so what's the point? And I'm not a master of anyone anymore, so don't call me that."

"Don't be a sad old man," Deidara scoffed. "That doesn't suit you."

"We bring news," Sasori interrupted before Kisame could retort. "Do you know where Itachi is, Kisame?"

"With his wife," Kisame said, "Seriously, what else is new? She's looking like she's going to pop any day now, so he almost never leaves her side."

They left Kisame to dine, and Shikamaru went off somewhere else—probably to check on the information they had on the seal one more time before hitting the hay—Sakura accompanying Sasori and Deidara to Itachi's quarters.

The two artists had grown somber again, Sakura noticed with no small amount of unease. Gods, Deidara almost looked like she was going to start screaming and tearing her hair out at any moment, and Sasori, frankly, seemed to be extremely constipated. His entire frame was tense and stiff, as opposed to Deidara, who tapped her fingers against the outside of her thigh a lot.

"Could you go first?" Deidara muttered to her companion. "I don't think..."

And so, Sasori was the first face that Itachi saw when they entered. Izumi immediately peered over his soldier to search for Deidara's face, and perked up immensely when she saw her.

"Deidara! Come to see me again, have you?" Izumi joked, putting a hand on her extremely round belly. Kisame hadn't been joking—she really did appear to be on the verge of popping. Personally, Deidara thought that she looked absolutely miserable in her condition.

Weakly, Deidara raised a hand in greeting. "Hey, Izumi..."

"Itachi." Sasori's voice was firm. "Something happened today and that you'd ought to know about."

The Uchiha shifted in his seat, stroking lazy circles on his wife's pale knuckles. He was listening, Sasori knew, and the puppet master took a deep breath.

"Obito's dead." It was sharp, concise, and straight to the point. The way that Sasori felt like it should be delivered.

The sight of the blood draining from Itachi's face and going straight to his Sharingan eyes was a sight that Sasori wished to never see again. Itachi... so pale, so bewildered.

His voice was strained. "Who was it, Sasori?"

Sasori did not answer, and a muscle in Itachi's jaw twitched in agitation.

"I asked you, who was it?"

Sasuke, was the first reply, one that was on the verge of leaving his tongue. But Daichi's account was obviously biased and muddled. It didn't make any sense to him—why would Sasuke murder Obito, who'd been shot—perhaps grievously so? No, he would not murder his cousin, but he would...

It all clicked together.

Of course. Sasori almost sighed in relief. There was only one thing it could have been, and Daichi just happened to see the world from only one perspective. It was a mercy kill. There was likely more to it, but Sasori couldn't connect the dots to form a more comprehensive picture if there weren't enough dots to connect in the first place.

Sasori closed his eyes before opening them again, his gaze hard. "Tsukigakure."

"Itachi—" Izumi was cut off when Itachi suddenly stood.

"Madara?" His voice was a soft, deadly whisper. His fury was suffocating—they could all feel it rolling off of him in gigantic, tsunami-worthy waves.

Sasori hesitated. "I'm not sure, but I'm certain that he knows about it at the very least."

Itachi's lip curled.

"You're not going to do anything rash, are you?" Sakura suddenly spoke up, reminding everyone of her presence.

Rash? Deidara stared at Itachi, gauging his reaction. Uchiha don't do rash. Not normally, anyway, but given the right incentive... Her fists clenched.

"Tomorrow," Itachi intoned firmly, gazing at all of them. "We will not go hungry."

Izumi's breath hitched, and Deidara felt a surge of pity of her dear friend.

I hope, she said silently, watching as Izumi stared down at her hands in mild shock, as Sakura tightened her lips and gave a firm nod, as Sasori resigned himself to Itachi's next course of action, That Obito is the last one.

She closed her eyes, and, behind her eyelids, Obito smiled one last time and waved before turning his back to her and walking into the darkness, disappearing forever.


"Ne, Danna?"

"What is it, brat?"

"What do we do now?"

A pause.

"Now?

"Now, we wait."


"Thanks to Sasori's help, we've nearly figured out the seal. Tsk, it would have saved us a lot of trouble if we knew that he was proficient in seals..."

"Maa, what's done is done. We have one quadrant left. Then... we can finally leave this place."

"Otou-san..."

"Hm?"

"What do we do then?"

A pause.

"Then?

"We'll go to our allies."


"Okaa-chan."

"Yes, my little light?"

"What are we gonna do... without otou-san? What?"

"What? We... we'll survive.

"Just like he would want us to."


"I want her back, Hanabi."

"I know.

"I want her back, too."

 

Chapter Text

There were quarters reserved only for Uchiha in Itachi's (former) mansion, and Sasuke's team was granted permission to stay there by Madara himself. He had heard Mizuki muttering jealously in the hallways about favoritism, but the sadistic man-child's upturned nose was promptly turned downward by a few loyal soldiers that had experienced the general's strength for themselves. Unless Mizuki went crying to his influential father (and wouldn't the soldiers look down upon him if he did), the only five Uchiha turncoats would be keeping their accommodation.

The quarters weren't very big; Sasuke, as the highest ranking officer among their squad, had his own room, while Shisui, Ashikaga, Yano, and Kagami barracked in the other, larger sleeping quarters. Between the two rooms was a small lounge—a common room for discussion and relaxation, if you will.

It was where Shisui found himself right now, looking a sorry sight sprawled across the couch, a half-empty bottle of sake on the table in front. The lights were off as it was late at night, and Sasuke was out patrolling with Ashikaga and Yano. His cousin barely slept nowadays—Shisui knew; he could tell from the dark circles that had accumulated underneath his eyes—and his working hours definitely had some part to play in Sasuke's recent insomnia. Outside of his normal schedule, he volunteered for more patrols than he could keep up with—probably trying to keep himself running on the asphalt road; trying to keep himself from taking a breather and looking around at the pain and the suffering—

Muttering, Shisui reached for the bottle, heaving himself up in a sitting position after failing to do so. He was so, so glad that no one could see him now—Uchiha Shisui, spending his lonely nights with only alcohol and the moon behind the clouds for company. Even Itachi had never seen Shisui tipsy, and they had been thick as thieves back in the day.

"Maa, what a sorry sight you are..."

Instantly, Shisui straightened, awkwardly drawing out his tanto from the holster on his hip. Then he relaxed. "Oh, it's just you."

"Tsk." Kagami clicked their tongue, voice muffled by the mask as usual. "You say my name with such loathing. I can't believe you started without me."

Shisui snorted, the sound wet. "You weren't invited. This pity party is for my, myself, and I."

"Don't look so put out." Kagami closed the door behind them and flopped on the couch next to Shisui. "Everybody has their own coping mechanisms, especially when faced with times like these..." They adjusted their mask—it was a purple one with lollipop swirls where the cheeks would be on a normal face. It had a single eye hole on the left side of the face for them to peer through. "Everybody's slowly dying and losing faith—we haven't done any business for weeks now. But the hardasses don't mind; they have more time to give that stick adequate training."

Shisui glanced curiously at the man—woman? He wasn't sure; nobody was, really—as they tilted their mask upward slightly to reveal a pink, surprisingly normal mouth. Their lips wrapped around the bottle before chugging down the rest of Shisui's sake.

"I bet you're thinking that you're not doing enough again. But you're wrong," Kagami stated confidently. "You, eyepatch, and the spaz are all doing your bit. Ain't your fault that civilians aren't equipped to survive in the woods."

He chortled. "'Eyepatch'? 'Spaz'? You're a hoot, aren't 'cha?"

They shrugged. "If that is a jab at my creativity, I will ignore it like the respectable soldier I am."

What kind of respectable soldiers do what we're doing? Then again...

"Wanna talk about it?"

"Sasuke," Shisui groaned, as if his cousin's name explained everything.

Regardless, it was enough for Kagami to get the gist of it. "Ooohh... did he not react well to..." They quietened for a moment before continuing, "I never talked to him, you know? He lived far away enough for me to never bother. But a man who could run a business that good is a man worth respecting. I think this is the part where I toast to Obito, but we just drank the last of the sake."

"Sasuke never reacts well to anything," Shisui said, pushing past the grief that threatened to prick at his heart. Now wasn't the time, even if Obito had once accused him of being a sad drunk despite never even seeing him beyond buzzed before.

"True."

They sat in companionable silence.

"So, Mangekyou? That makes him, Itachi, and you the only Mangekyou wielders since the times of the Warring Clans. And all in the same generation, too. How would you, Shisui, describe the experience as? A reward that's worth all the sacrifices? Or no?"

"It's like..." Shisui's gaze flattened. "The gift that keeps on taking."

"Gotcha. Like children it is."

He spluttered. "What?! I didn't—pfft!"

Behind the mask Kagami smiled. "I made you laugh... for real, this time. You're awfully good at hiding behind a mask, you know. And this is coming from someone wearing a literal one."

"Then I think I might be drunk."

"You're a sad drunk."

Obito was right. "These are sad times."

"Not as sad as the sight of you looking like a hen left out in the rain. Now up you get, you're on dawn patrol tomorrow. You can wallow some other time. And don't forget, my curly-haired relative, that you are not alone in our brilliant crusade for freedom."

Shisui laughed weakly as Kagami grabbed his arm and put it around their shoulder, heaving him upward with a small grunt. "It's hardly a crusade. More like... quiet rebellion."

"Hmm. It's the quiet ones you always have to look out for."


Madara was watching the fights today, which automatically put Sasuke on edge. After completing all his current patrols, Sasuke stood on the balcony looking down at the ring. As usual, around it sat ten formidable Tsukigakure warriors in seiza, not even twitching as their first opponent for this afternoon got on stage. Whenever Madara was watching, Mizuki and Sasuke would be, too. Mizuki because he was a sick bastard that was here almost every day when he wasn't doing his 'adviser duties', and Sasuke because Madara needed a translator. Tsukigakure came from across the Eastern Sea, on a lone island that was once Uzushiogakure before a disease wiped them all out a little past the Warring Clans era. As such, they spoke different languages; though there were gaping similarities in some of the characters (so gaping, in fact, that a man with half a brain could trace their mainland origins just by using common sense), their lexicons were pronounced differently. Sasuke, who was naturally talented at languages, had picked it up with relative ease.

"Arrgghhh!" The man below screamed as his opponent, a lean but muscular Tsukigakure warrior, snapped his leg.

Sasuke almost winced. Such a debilitating injury all but ensured death within the next week or so.

"Someone carry him off," Mizuki ordered, side-eyeing the general for any counter-commands. He received none, and nodded in self-affirmation. An officer dragged the man off the stage, opened the iron gates barring the other men from entering, and practically threw the grievously injured man into the mass. He was caught by some of the others standing at the front.

"Shit, are you okay?!" someone yelled out, the bars jostling as they threatened to snap close from all the movement.

"Your leg!"

"Hey, one of you come out already!" Mizuki sneered, and Sasuke resisted the urge to punch his face in. "We've got so many bags of rice to give away, and you're all just standing there!"

They looked to him, confused, and Mizuki glanced expectantly at Sasuke.

He suppressed a sigh, and said curtly, "Whoever's up next, come up."

Mizuki frowned. "Is it really that short in your tongue...?"

"I delivered the message," Sasuke dodged calmly, coal eyes following the trembling man who was shuffling forward.

Mizuki curled his lip, but the fight had begun.

It was the same lean-muscular man who had broken his previous opponent's leg, and Sasuke could tell that the Tsukigakure man was ready to fall asleep from dodging the civilian's weak punches.

After a bit of playing around, the lean-muscular warrior punched the shaking man straight in the nose, making him scream and fall backwards, knocking the back of his skull against the mat.

Sasuke closed his eyes, his stomach lurching. He had a feeling that this would be one of those 'accidents', again. And he couldn't do a damn thing about it. He was valuable, yes, for his translating services, but that did not mean that he was infallible. A translator could be replaced. Sasuke was simply found convenient—and, gods forbid, amusing—by Madara.

If Naruto were here—the dobe—he could put it in a much cruder way. It would probably sound something like, "Sasuke, what the hell are you doing, you bastard?! Just standing there?! The Sasuke I know isn't a coward like you, dattebayo!" But their amity had been brief, anyway, so it really didn't matter in the end. Their friendship had always been compromised by their clashing personalities. There'd never been any glue to hold them together—even Sakura and Kakashi hadn't been good enough, and the four of them had all drifted away from one another. Or, at least, Sasuke and Sakura had. He was pretty sure that Naruto and Kakashi had been on pretty good terms the last time he saw them at Obito's tea house.

The Sasuke Naruto had known wasn't really Sasuke at all, in the end. In the end, he was just another coward who abandoned his love ones when they needed him most—a weak, spineless coward just like his brother, the one who had abandoned his family for a girl who was common by Uchiha standards.

"That's enough."

Sasuke was a coward, just like his brother before him—

"I said—"

Crash!

"—that's enough."

Everybody whipped their heads to the man who had ripped the wrought gate open with his bare hands, his slender frame trembling slightly from the exertion of such a feat. The gate had been weak, but no civilian could have possibly—

Sasuke couldn't hold in the sharp inhale when he saw him walk out to the ring. Raven hair, tied in a low ponytail. A slender, almost feminine body dressed in traditional martial art garb. It was the one that Sasuke had always seen him in—the one that Obito had custom made for him to suit his Amaterasu Style.

"Quick!" Mizuki urged Sasuke. "What's he saying?!"

Sasuke could only gape at the appearance of the brother that he hadn't seen since the war began, his teeth clenching when Itachi knelt beside the man. Groaning, the man reached for the sack of rice an officer at the bottom had thrown toward him in a taunt.

His hand closed around it as Itachi rose—

Click.

Sasuke nearly screamed

Bang!

Itachi flinched.

Thump.

The rice in the sack was undoubtedly stained with blood. The trembling man's body had flopped forward as soon as the bullet entered his brain, face-planting into the bag of rice.

Someone dragged him away as the men behind the iron bars roared.

"WHY DID THEY OPEN FIRE?!"

"KAZUKI, NO!"

"KAZUKI!"

"Why did you shoot him?" Itachi lifted his head, looking directly at Madara, Mizuki, and Sasuke. The youngest Uchiha felt his blood freeze in his veins as his brother searched for an answer. "Answer me, otouto." Now he was just looking at Sasuke. "Why did they open fire?!"

Itachi had raised his voice.

Sasuke almost fell onto his knees.

Mizuki opened his mouth, undoubtedly about to demand Sasuke for a translation when Madara spoke up for the first time since they had all entered the room.

"Who told you to shoot?" Madara demanded frostily, glaring at Mizuki. His eyes glowed red momentarily, and Mizuki faltered, though he did not lower his gun, which was pointed at Itachi.

If Itachi's display of strength had shocked them into silence, Madara's words made sure the atmosphere had dropped to absolute zero.

"He," Mizuki stumbled over his words, "took the rice even though he lost. I... wanted to teach him a lesson." Impressively, Mizuki kept his voice quite level, though it did waver in uncertainty a few times.

Madara's scowl deepened. Mizuki lowered his gun to the side as Itachi drilled holes into his head with spinning Sharingan eyes. "This place," Madara said lowly as he peered past the railing, staring intently at the bloodstained sack of rice, "is for tournaments only." Slowly, Madara turned around, stepping closer to Mizuki. Sasuke shuffled backward slightly as Madara wrapped his hand around the handle of Mizuki's gun, the other man's hand still attached to it.

Sasuke activated the first stage of his Sharingan, watching closely as Madara forcefully lifted the gun until the muzzle was pressed to the soft underside of Mizuki's chin. The older Uchiha's finger played with the trigger, staring his adviser in the eye. "Never open fire in here ever again. Not even your father will save you from me if you do."

Mizuki's eyes flashed with fear. "G-got it. Sir."

Madara released his hand, turning away in a remarkably displeased manner.

"A-ah, do not be too angry... I will arrange another match right away..." Mizuki turned to Sasuke. "Continue! Go down there and tell them to continue!"

Sasuke gave him a shallow bow before making his way down to the lower level. He purposefully swept his gaze past Itachi, instead focusing on the men behind the gate. "Who else wants to fight?" he asked in the Amegakure tongue.

No one did. No one except—

"Me. I will fight."

Sasuke's heart wrenched. Why was his brother trying so hard to get himself killed?! He wanted to scream in frustration, but all he could do was stiffly turn around. "Brother," he hissed, before getting cut off. "You—"

"Tell me," Itachi interrupted coldly. "Was that man beaten to death?"

"... Aniki." He cursed his weakness.

"I'm here, anyway. I will fight."

Defeated, Sasuke stepped back, turning his head upward to declare, "It's him. He will do it."

"Excellent," Mizuki said hurriedly, just wanting to get this over and done with.

Itachi glanced around at the ten taijutsu masters sitting around the ring. Then he lifted his chin, staring Madara in the eye. "I want to fight all ten of them."

Sasuke's eyes widened before he went over to Itachi, hissing his displeasure, "Are you insane?! Don't—"

"I want to fight all ten of them," Itachi repeated firmly, not even looking at his brother.

His mind was made up. Sasuke could do no more to save him from them. He turned again, looking up at the general and his adviser. "He says he wants to fight all of them."

Madara blinked, about as much surprise as he would show. He stepped closer to the railing, staring Itachi straight in the eye, scrutinizing every detail of his person. He saw the worn lines in his face, his unwashed hands, and dirt-patched cheeks. "Ten?" he murmured.

Sasuke nodded. "Yes."

Mizuki immediately smirked, apparently having forgotten about Madara's ire toward him just a few moments ago. "Hah! Let's see just how good he is." He raised his voice so that it carried over to the other side of the room. "Attention! All of you! Unit One, Unit Two! Begin!"

"Yes!" chorused the warriors, all of them simultaneously getting up from seizas.

Sasuke bowed one last time to Madara before turning to his side to walk away. He paused. "Be careful... brother."

Itachi rolled up his sleeves. "... Aa."

From the corner of his eye, Itachi saw Sasuke leave and join the other observers in their ranks. He fit in so... seamlessly. It did not sit well with him. So this is what Sasori had been keeping from me. I'm surprised that neither Hanabi, Sakura, or the others sent out ever caught wind of him. Or maybe they had, and had decided not to tell him in order to spare his feelings. His heart dropped to his stomach in disappointment. Sasuke... Letting the thought leave his head, Itachi fell into a mentality that he hadn't exposed himself to in a while. A taijutsu battle.

The fighters surrounded him. A few of the younger ones looked smug. Most of them were stone-faced. All of them had their hair in a militaristic buzz cut. As if they were one single entity—and Itachi knew he would be in trouble if they fought like one—they entered into their stances with a fierce kiai. All were the exact same.

Behind him, Itachi could practically feel Sasuke's Sharingan gaze burning into the back of his clothes, and he had no delusions about Madara and Mizuki either. They were watching just as closely as Sasuke, if not more.

Steadily, Itachi lifted his hands up in a closed fist, firmly acknowledging his ten opponents.

It had begun.

"Haa!"

That was the young one's first big mistake. Broadcasting his movements in an attempt to look flashy in front of the general and his most trusted adviser. The martial artist spun around in the air and launched a kick from the side at Itachi, who stepped backward to avoid it. As the young male's leg flashed past him, Itachi grabbed the limb and threw him painfully into the ground. Then, mercilessly, he kicked his head, snapping his neck backward. He was immediately unconscious. All the while, the nine others circled around him like hawks. Their integrity as martial artists dictated that they would not attack Itachi all at once, and that was their biggest mistake.

The next one attacked with his fists first, aiming for the Uchiha's face. They traded blows before Itachi harshly slapped him away with a force he almost never exerted on his opponents. Not on Hoshigaki, who had invaded his home for a fight all those months ago. Not even on Orochimaru, who had threatened Akatsuki's entire pride as well as broken one of Itachi's precious vases plus their dinner table. The man he had slapped collapsed onto the ground and disappeared in a mass of feet and moving bodies.

The third man tried something similar, though he tried to take out Itachi's shoulders instead. Itachi dodged the punches, then grabbed the man's arm and held him in place with a nigh unbreakable grip.

He could not kill Mizuki. But these man...

Were not Mizuki.

The man cried out as Itachi punched him in the jaw repeatedly, one blow after another until his jaw bone and his cheekbone was clearly fractured or otherwise damaged. Then he kicked his legs out from under him and pushed him belly-first into the floor. It was at this moment that someone else decided to attack, and Itachi pressed himself onto the last man and rolled out of the way. From behind, a bulky man kicked out at him.

Itachi caught it—

—and snapped it backwards with a sickening crack.

To his credit, the man's strangled scream was muffled extremely well.

A shorter fighter jumped at him and Itachi skirted to the side, allowing the man to fly past him safely.

There was so much noise, and Itachi nearly got hit by a punch coming in from the side. Growling, Itachi kneed his new attacker in the ribs and shoved him to the mat. Winded, he tried to get up again, but Itachi would not have it.

For a moment, the man's pained face turned into Mizuki's.

A moment was all Itachi needed.

Sasuke had never seen his brother fight so viciously before. He had only ever seen him fight halfheartedly in peace. This... beast was not his brother. It couldn't be. Yet, it undeniably was. He wasn't sure if reality could get any clearer for him, and he could only blink, stunned as he watched Itachi bombard a series of brutal punched all over the fallen fighter's torso and chest before moving onto his face. He did not last long.

Another one came at him. Of course he did. He was honey, and they were the flies. Except, honey wasn't supposed to fight back, something that this man learned the hard away. Itachi twisted his arm behind his back until the bone snapped, palmed the side of his face, and rotated his entire body in a spin. The man spun in the air before landing roughly on the ground. He did not get up, having fallen unconscious from the pain.

Itachi exhaled jarringly. The man attacking him this time had his ankle caught and broken before being flipped onto the ground and having his tailbone stomped on. Deftly Itachi climbed on top of his back and sent his elbow digging into trapezius, causing the man to have a gutteral scream erupting from his throat.

Now there were only four fighters standing. The others were either unconscious, writhing on the ground in pain, or...

Sasuke swallowed.

Dead.

They seemed to have clued in on Itachi's unforgiving disposition. This time, the remaining four fighters attacked him at once, but he expertly evaded or parried all of their kicks and punches.

One fell when Itachi punched him in the neck after exchanging fierce blows.

Itachi felt someone's arm brush past his side, almost burning his skin through his clothes with sheer speed. He was fast, but Itachi was faster. He yanked the man's wrist, pulling him forward, stumbling. The only noise was the pattering of his other opponents' feet as they composed themselves, and the sharp sound of flesh bruising flesh. He chopped the man's neck as he spun, making his eyes roll to the back of his head. Itachi then grabbed his gi and turned him around, so that he could see his face.

The man's neck was snapped with another chop.

Itachi moved his hand back, and the man collapsed onto the floor, completely still.

Two more, he coached himself, catching a man approaching him from behind as he turned.

Itachi blocked his punches and set himself on hammering the man's chest until his ribs or chest caved in—whichever came first. The man was pushed to the ground by Itachi's attacks, but the Uchiha kept on going. When he finished, the man was twitching.

All of these people. All of them nameless, faceless. Itachi slowly turned around to face the last fighter. Now, there is only one.

It was one of the young ones, Itachi noticed. One of the men that had exchanged smirks with another young friend in the ring. Now he was no longer sneering or smirking or doing anything of the sort. Instead, he held his fists up defensively, his entire form trembling slightly as Itachi focused his attention entirely on him. Almost lackadaisically, Itachi approached him.

At first, the young fighter shuffled backwards. But then he stopped, and when Itachi got close enough, the man immediately launched a kick at his neck. Itachi dodged it, and sent a hand flying into his stomach, causing spittle to spray from his gaping mouth. The man all but folded inward on himself, and Itachi caught his head and twisted so that his entire person was sent spinning into the mat, groaning and moaning.

Impassively, Itachi punched him in the skull. Once. Twice. Hard enough to lobotomize him. The man's eyes were squeezed shut in pain, blood dribbling from his nose as he took the brunt of Itachi's assault. Then he stilled, just as Itachi lifted his arm up for one more shot.

The Uchiha slowly straightened, his eyes—still coal, no sight of a Sharingan—burning with a vengeance. His fists were clenched at his sides, his knuckles split and bloodied. He unfurled them.

Immediately, more men dressed in the white uniforms of Itachi's ten opponents emerged from the shadows, circling around Itachi as they got into their stances.

Itachi tensed.

"Stay back!"

Surprisingly, it was Madara that had spoken, he and his adviser having descended during the fight and now heading toward the ring. Madara stopped at the side, as did Mizuki, who looked incredibly disgruntled.

At his command, they all stood back, leaving Itachi to stand alone in the center of the ring. Madara approached him, arms by his side, his wild mane falling over his shoulders and half of his face as he circled Itachi.

Unblinking, Itachi merely lifted his locked fists again before letting his arms fall to his side. Nine rice bags were thrown at his feet by a few officers.

"You..." Madara stared at him. "Come back again."

"He wants you to come back," Sasuke translated, standing behind the two of them outside of the ring.

Itachi stared the general down, and Sasuke could literally feel the electricity in the air. A bead of sweat rolled down his temple and disappeared down the collar of his uniform. Itachi, you... What are you going to do now?

"I'm not here," Itachi answered evenly, "for you."

Sasuke hesitated. No. No, this absolutely would not do. Nobody treated the general with blatant disrespect. If he didn't do something, his brother—the man who he had believed had caused him suffering—would... "He said... he will come back."

Itachi turned from the general, picking up all nine sacks of rice. The tenth one. Where is the... His eyes landed on the bloody sack that the dead man from the previous round had fought. He walked toward it and picked it up as well, adding it to the pile he was cradling to his chest with one arm.

"Oi."

Itachi slowed to a stop.

"What's your name?" Madara asked.

Sasuke, who was now standing by the iron gates, said to his brother, "He wants to know your name."

Itachi turned around again, meeting Madara's gaze. "I'm just... a man from Ame."

Closing his eyes, Sasuke exhaled sharply. "His name is Uchiha Itachi." And he is my brother.

"Hmph." Madara crossed his arms as he watched Itachi's figure disappear past the iron gates and through the throng of men, who were too shocked to even hound him. "Uchiha..."


The women were crying as Itachi set down the bloody bag of rice on their table. Kazuki had been their son and their brother. Silently, he left their single-room house, only to run into Sasuke.

"Itachi!"

Ah. He stopped in front of his younger brother, the one he hadn't seen in months.

"You need to be more careful," Sasuke warned, and perhaps, if the circumstances were different, Itachi's heart would have been melted at the obvious concern in his brother's voice.

But the women were still crying inside.

"I don't know what Madara might do," Sasuke finished.

Itachi stared at his brother. Then slapped him across the face.

"Kkkhh...! Itachi?!"

"Madara?" Itachi repeated. "It's Madara-sama to you, isn't it, foolish little brother? Or Madara-taisho? Isn't that who you are—the general's dog?"

"Dog?" Sasuke glared at him, palming the red mark on his face. "What dog? His death had nothing to do with me! I'm just an interpreter and the most I ever do is patrol the goddamn streets. You think I don't have to survive, too?"

"Survive?" Itachi echoed, sounding incredulous. "You watch your countrymen get beaten to death. You have no right to talk about survival. You don't even have the guts to survive." Their gazes held for one more moment before Itachi swept past him, not even looking back.

"You're right." Sasuke chuckled darkly. "I don't have any. But you do. You have lots of it. If you have the guts, go beat them up!" he shouted after Itachi's retreating figure. "Beat all of them! Beat as many as you can!" He barked out a harsh laugh. "I was supposed to just be an interpreter, not a lackey. I am a man from Ame!" In his fury, he had slipped into Tsukigakure's tongue.

A sigh escaped Itachi as he walked down the street, back to the beer hall. Sakura ushered him into the cellar as discretely as possible. Hardly any of the soldiers paid attention to him. Otouto, I cannot deny that you make mistakes; I do, too. But no matter what...

Sakura shut the lid above him.

... I will love you forever, and forgive you every time.


"I'm back," Itachi announced softly, stepping into the building block he shared with his wife.

"Itachi," Izumi greeted warmly, a hint of sadness and relief in her eyes.

Smiling tiredly, Itachi knelt down and cradled her belly, pressing his ear to the fabric. "I hope you've been good to your mother."

Izumi returned the smile, rubbing Itachi's red knuckles. "He has been," she told him. "Ah, anata..."

"Don't bother Sakura," Itachi said swiftly. "It's not worth it."

"Then let me."

Itachi sat in silence as his wife cleaned his knuckles with a wet cloth. She wished it were warm, but this would have to suffice for now. She then spread a disinfecting oil she had gotten from Sakura a few days ago onto the cloth and rubbed the ointment into Itachi's wounds.

He watched her press the cloth gently. "You are good to me," he murmured. What had he ever done to deserve such a loving wife? "I realized today that I'm useless."

Izumi eyed him curiously.

"I've practiced martial arts. Spent most of my life perfecting the Amaterasu." Itachi let out a small chuckle. "But so what? This world... is minuscule. I can't do anything."

"I don't care what the world is like," Izumi stated bluntly, looking up at him resolve in her eyes. "I only know that I'm very happy right now. As long as we all stay together, everything will be okay." Perhaps it was naive of her, but...

"Aa," he agreed, pulling her closer and running his fingers through her hair. "It's essential... for a family to stay together."

She smiled. "Not just us. I mean the people we care about. They're family, too. Deidara, Sasori, Sakura, even Kisame."

And Sasuke, Itachi added silently.


"Hyaah!"

Tomorrow was Orochimaru's promised assault, and Deidara and Sasori were having the workers partner up and spar with one another. In fact, they practiced their taijutsu everywhere. Even beating cotton had become an exercise for improving their physiology, much to their delight.

The workplace became almost a playground, and Naruto and some of the younger kids enjoyed the rather relaxed atmosphere.

But none of that could last for long.


Today, Orochimaru came.

 

Chapter Text

"AARRGGGHHH!"

The scream of a man in agony did not even faze Sasuke anymore. Screaming was normal. Silence... was what he was really wary of.

Beside him, Mizuki's beady little eyes were gleaming in satisfaction and cruelty, while Madara was almost entirely unmoved. Personally, Sasuke thought that he looked bored.

Mizuki attempted to lull his superior into conversation, babbling eagerly about how Taro had crushed his opponent and so on.

Madara turned to Sasuke. "Why hasn't Uchiha Itachi returned?"

"I..." Sasuke hesitated, stepping a bit closer to the general. "I don't know, sir."

"Hn. Find him."

Dammit. "I don't know where he is." It wasn't a lie. He truly didn't know. "I don't know how to find him."

Madara stared straight ahead. "How big is Akatsuki? How," he whirled around, eyes flashing in irritation, "hard can it be to find him?!"

A bead of sweat dripped down Sasuke's cheek as he inwardly cursed. "Akatsuki is indeed very big..."

Smack! Sasuke's eyes widened in shock as he was hit across the face with a baton, then kicked in the stomach. As he fell on his back, he saw Madara still in his original place, a pissed of Mizuki towering over the teenager. Anger boiled in his chest, but there was nothing he could do against the adviser. By everything except strength and skill, Mizuki was more powerful than him.

Mizuki slashed upward with his leg, nailing Sasuke on the soft underside of his chin and sending him sprawling, hissing in pain.

"Useless thing!" Mizuki berated. "What do you mean you don't know where he is?! Tell us, you Ame dog!"

Sasuke defiantly stared him down, refusing to make another sound. Infuriated, Mizuki continued to kick him—and Sasuke, for all his Uchiha pride, let him.

"Enough."

Mizuki's leg stilled at Madara's command, and he straightened before returning to his place beside the general.

Sasuke gritted his teeth, his cheek pressed against the floor as the new bruises on his ribs and torso ached. "Asshole...!"

Itachi was right. Itachi was always right.

He really was the general's dog.

And he didn't like it at all.

If this is surviving, then I might as well be dead.


"And this, sir, is syrup for okaa-chan," a boy with missing front teeth told Itachi. "It's really sweet and tasty, but okaa-chan doesn't let me have any."

Kazuki's sister, Asagi, was pregnant—about five months along—with her second child. Her eldest son, Shogo, was currently showing him what kind of home-made supplements Asagi used.

"I'm sure it's for good reason," Itachi answered. He was waiting for Asagi to finish hanging their clothes on metal wire that stretched across the interior of the Shimizu residence.

"Since oji-san isn't coming back for a long time," Shogo said, "Can you stay with us so you can protect okaa-san and soba? You're nice, mister. Just like oji-san is."

Itachi's gaze saddened. "I'm sorry, but I can't." Hesitantly, he poked Shogo in the forehead with his fingers. "This is your family, not mine. One day, you'll grow up strong, and you won't need me to protect them."

He pouted. "Then why did you come?"

"Your mother is pregnant," Itachi explained. "I'm here to pass on some vitamins and supplements to her. All of them were created by a good friend of mine and approved by an extraordinary healer. This will help your mother."

It was at that moment that Asagi finished with the laundry and overheard. "Oh, you really didn't have to." She smiled wearily. "You've already done so much for us already. I'm sure your own wife must be missing you."

"I'm not staying long," Itachi told her as he passed on the bottled concoctions to her. "I wish your family well, Asagi-san."

Tears welled up in her eyes. "Th-thank you, Uchiha-sama."

"Wait!" Shogo ran after Itachi as he exited the door of their single-room residence. "Why don't you stay for a bit? Just for a game of hide and seek with me and my friends? Please?"

At that, a few dirty-faced little boys appeared from nearby houses and shelters, their eyes wide with innocence.

Itachi stilled as Shogo tugged on his sleeve and continued to plead, more young voices joining in. Asagi shot him an apologetic look, and he sighed.

"One game," Itachi conceded.

"Yay! You're it, okay?"

Itachi nodded, taking each and every one of the children's curious faces as they tentatively crowded him.

"Close your eyes and count from ten!" one particularly bold child ordered, and Itachi smiled slightly.

"Aa." Turning around, Itachi lifted his hands to cover his eyes. "Ten..."

There was the sound of scurrying feet and smothered giggling.

Unbeknownst to Itachi, Shogo was desperately looking around for a spot. He glanced over to his mother, who was observing from the doorway, for help, and Asagi mouthed something and pointed to a sheltered area. Shogo beamed and ran to hide.

"Three... two... one..." Itachi turned back around and uncovered his eyes. "Ready or not, I'm coming." His face immediately hardened when he saw who was approaching him.

Sasuke.

His brother looked a bit scuffed up. "Itachi. I thought I'd find you here."

Itachi met his gaze evenly. "Why are you here, otouto?"

Sasuke used a second to compose himself before replying, "Madara wants you to go back and fight him."

"... Leave."

His little brother grimaced. "I... can't."

"Bang!"

Itachi peered around Sasuke's shoulder, narrowing his eyes. That was Shogo.

Shogo emerged from behind a building, grinning his gummy smile as he walked backwards, his fingers formed in a 'gun' sign. Gleefully, he exclaimed childishly, "Bang! Bang, bang! Bang!"

"Bang!" an older voice chorused, and Itachi's blood chilled. "Bang, bang!" As he feared, Mizuki appeared right after Shogo, looking incredibly amused as he aimed his pistol at the boy's head and made mock firing motions with it. Two other soldiers appeared behind him.

Itachi rushed at Shogo, whisking him to the side and holding him protectively. "What the hell are you doing?!"

Asagi lunged for her son in terror, only for her foot to hit a metal bucket noisily. Mizuki's eyes flitted over to her.

"Huh," Mizuki said appreciatively, moving toward her. "How pretty."

Asagi stepped backward into her house, eyes wide with fear. "St-stay back!"

When Mizuki made no move to stop, Itachi blurred in front of him, drinking in the shock in his gaze before kicking his legs out from underneath him. Mizuki collapsed on the front step after falling forward. He hadn't even stilled before Itachi grabbed him by the back of his collar and twisted him around, palming him in a vertical motion that had his head snapping upward. With a fluid grace only he could ever achieve, Itachi knocked him into his fellow soldier, causing the soldier to stumble and crash against a stone wall.

The other soldier, crying out in surprise, made to hit Itachi with the butt of his rifle, only to be quickly disarmed and kicked in the face. He landed unconscious on the ground.

Leaving the fighting to his brother, Sasuke grabbed a confused, wary Shogo and pulled the child toward him, muttering curses under his breath.

Itachi had the soldiers taken care of in no time, and the worst damage he had received was dusty clothing. He patted down his garb as Sasuke slowly approached him from behind, having ushered Shogo back to his mother.

"Bastards," Sasuke uttered, coldly gazing at the unconscious form of Mizuki. "BASTARDS!" He stepped once on the adviser's booted leg, then twice. Thrice. Another time. He kept going until the bone cracked. Exhaling, he turned to Itachi. "You should go. It's not safe here."

Itachi raised an eyebrow at him.

"What?" Sasuke growled. "Grab the kid and the mother and go."

Itachi did, leading Asagi, Shogo, and Shogo's grandmother out of the decrepit home. They never even picked up their laundry.

"What about you?" Itachi asked, turning back one last time.

Sasuke grimaced. "I'll be fine. Just take them somewhere safe and go back to wherever you live. Don't... don't come out if you want to live." When Itachi continued to stare at him, he nudged his brother gruffly. "What the hell are you waiting for? That useless woman and her son over there need you. Go to them."

"Otouto." Slowly, Itachi reached up and poked his brother in the forehead, causing him to flinch. "Be safe."

"... Hn."


Blood sprayed from Sasuke's mouth in an arc as he flew backward onto the ground from a harsh kick. His entire body was battered with bruises, and there was a cut on his head, half-dried blood dripping out of it.

He tried to scramble up, but the man beating him pressed the end of his baton into his throat, causing him to gag and be still.

"YOU PIECE OF SHIT!" the man, a higher-ranking official, bellowed. "How could you let Uchiha escape?!"

"Sorry," Sasuke ground out, spitting out a wad of mucus and blood as he resisted the urge to smirk in the face of pain. "Even Mizuki with the aid of two armed soldiers could not stop him..."

His tormentor's face contorted in a fury. "Shut up!" He whacked Sasuke with his baton, and the wounded teenager instinctively curled up in a tight ball. "Useless! Utterly useless!"

"Tell them..." The man immediately stopped beating Sasuke to pay attention to Madara, who was seated in a couch that Shisui had helped choose for Itachi when the latter had just moved in with Izumi. "To dig him out. That's an order."

"Yes, sir." He aimed one last kick at the fallen Sasuke. "Tch. Scumbag. You're lucky the general is generous to his family."


Sasuke's steps were wobbly as he trudged toward the Uchiha compound, carrying with him miscellaneous food items he had poached from dinner. His face was now clean of blood, though the collar of his shirt was still slightly red.

The Uchiha in the compound tensed when they saw him, all of them either giving him the evil eye or hurrying away with their children in tow. It was as if a demon or a monster from wive's tales had come to life.

"Traitor," someone whispered loudly. "Look at him."

"He was so eager to jump on the bandwagon... serves him right."

"The Uchiha will not recognize a traitor as their heir..."

No, they wouldn't, would they? Sasuke grasped his head with his free hand, his head aching from having been slammed into the ground several times today. That didn't matter anymore. Nothing did, except...

Fugaku stood up as soon as Sasuke slid the door open.

The two men stared at each other.

"I was wrong," Sasuke said simply, placing the food down on the table. "And I'm paying for it."

Fugaku gazed at him stonily. "It's time like these where I am glad your mother is dead. I wouldn't want her to suffer from seeing you in such a disgraceful state."

His son chuckled grimly. "Like I said, I'm paying for my mistakes. I helped a nameless mother and her son escape today."

"If you expect praise, I am not the right person to come to," Fugaku said tartly, his eyes flitting from the bags of food to Sasuke. "Even with a peace offering."

Sasuke shook his head. "Praise? What's the point of that?" He answered his own question. "There isn't any. I just... wanted to let you know, I suppose. Enjoy the food. It's traditional Tsukigakure cuisine," he added as an afterthought, oily vindictiveness coating his heart.

Fugaku's lip curled. "Get out of my house."

"Work's for me. I was just about to anyway."

He could feel Fugaku's gaze burning into his back and decided to stop at the door. Without turning around, he said, "If I wanted to be praised by you... I could have just showed you."

"... Who was it?"

"Obito."

"Hn. I'd heard."

Sasuke did turn back this time, Mangekyou Sharingan spinning in his eyes. Fugaku stiffened, and Sasuke smiled cruelly.

"Goodbye, otou-sama."


Deidara could feel the hairs at the back of her neck rise every time someone brushed past her, which was often. She and Sasori had trained Obito's workers to the best of their ability within the span of a week, but she was not as deluded as to think that Orochimaru wouldn't be able to take out all of them.

It'd already been wordlessly decided that she and Sasori would be the ones fighting the snake-man, while the rest of the civilians would defend themselves from the other bandits when they undoubtedly attacked.

"Deidara?" Tenten was beating the cotton pile next to her. "You're flattening your bundle."

Ah. So she was. A small blush appeared on her cheeks and Deidara closed her eyes, frowning. "Shut up, un. I knew that."

Tenten barked a laugh. "Yeah, right!" Her gaze softened. "Are you worried? Don't be—you and Sasori-sama trained us. We're not going to let it go to waste that easily."

Despite herself, Deidara gave her an annoyed look. "Why does he get a -sama but I don't even have an honorific attached to my name?"

"Ehh? Is that what you're worried about?" Tenten nudged her with her shoulder playfully. "Just focus on getting this bundle done." She turned to Udon, Moegi, and Konohamaru, who just seemed to be loitering around. "Hey, you three, why don't you go outside and dry those bundles over there?"

"Sure thing!" Moegi answered. "Come on, guys, let's go!"

The three younger kids scurried to grab the small baskets of cotton and went out through the hole in the wall, which everyone had accepted as a new entry way.

There buzz of the workers lulled Deidara to a state of serenity for a moment before it was broken by shouting and running.

"Everyone!" Konohamaru yelled as he and his friends returned. "They're back again! They've come back!" Just as he said the words, Orochimaru followed them in with his group behind him, looking smug. This time, he had collected even more people than before—there were at least twelve more men. Tayuya still remained the only female in the group.

Just like they had practiced, everybody moved into a defensive position in the building so that they would surround the attackers. They all stood silently as Orochimaru stopped in his tracks, looking around the room.

Deidara knew what he saw, even if she wasn't at the front of the crowd. Sheep for slaughter. That's all he sees us as. And that was good.

"Is the money ready?" Orochimaru inquired, still glancing around before stopping at the sight of a familiar blond. Naruto.

"We won't give you any dough!" Naruto shot him down immediately, pointing threateningly at the man. Behind him, the workers started to roll up their sleeves in preparation. The workers standing unnoticed by Orochimaru on his right started doing the same. But Orochimaru's focus was entirely on Naruto, and so was his group's attention.

Orochimaru tilted his head, his eyes curving in a combination of irritation and amusement. "What did you just say?"

"I'm not afraid of you," Naruto declared, sliding into the most basic stance that Sasori and Deidara had taught all of them. "You can't bully us anymore, dattebayo!"

"Seriously?" one of the twins—Ukon—drawled, pushing past Tayuya and Kidomaru to approach the blond in a menacing manner. "You want me to beat you up, kid?" When Naruto didn't respond to the jibe, blue eyes burning with determination, Ukon grew annoyed and struck at him lazily.

Swiftly, Naruto pushed his hand away and punched him straight in the face, causing him to stumble backwards, clutching his nose. "You...!" A flicker of fear passed through Ukon's eyes as every single worker standing behind Naruto adopted the same stance with practiced ease, their faces stony.

Orochimaru narrowed his eyes, perceiving the threat for the first time. "Well, then. I suppose I don't have to play nice anymore. Destroy all of them!"

Shouting followed as his followers dived into the fray, exchanging blows with Obito's workers left and right.

Naruto growled when one man leaped at him, his instincts and training kicking in as he jabbed his attacker in the gut. Yeowch! Grimacing, he shook out his hand, not use to inflicting serious blows on his opponents. This was much more different from the sparring he had done with his fellow workers and friends.

A man with a rat's nest for hair went for a chubby woman, exchanging blows with her. She surprised him with her tenacity, but he quickly got the upper hand, slapping her across the face. The woman squeezed her eyes shut and frantically started to attack back, pushing him toward a bucket of cotton.

An old man was cowering behind one of the cotton buckets, and flinched when the gangster went crashing past him. "Good job, Son!"

Son, the chubby woman, nodded, smiling. But the smile on her face quickly fell when another gangster jumped at her, swinging his arms around. He fought more viciously than the previous man, and was quickly pushing her back.

Another woman got punched in the nose and winced, holding one hand above the injury as she retreated from her opponent.

"THIS IS FOR THREATENING MY HUSBAND!" Rin snapped a man's arm and threw him against hard machinery, stomping after him to finish the fight.

Tenten was knocking a teenager on his ass with a broom. She spun the broom around in the air before jabbing the blunt end of the handle into his shoulder. The teenager screamed and rolled on his side, clutching the wound.

Rock Lee, Konohamaru, Moegi, and Udon worked together to bring down a single, beefy opponent. He was incredibly large, and it was incredibly satisfying when Lee managed to kick him across the temple and knock him out.

Within the writhing mass of fighters, Sasori took down men left and right with a cold efficiency, his chakra threads whipping left and right as he fought. There was no time or space to release his puppets here, but he didn't need them to win against cannon fodder.

A man lashed out at the red-haired puppeteer with a knife, only to be punched into the wall by Deidara. They exchanged a brief glance, nodding before parting ways to help their one-week disciples.

Sasori came face-to-face with the red-haired girl with the foul mouth. His lip curled in displeasure as they engaged, furiously exchanging blows. Tayuya was better than most of the others he had fought, but she was still nothing compared to him. "Think fast, brat."

"Wha—" Tayuya swore when Sasori threw a spider puppet he had been keeping hidden in his sleeve on her face. Little spikes in its legs drilled into her soft eyeballs, and the girl screamed shrilly, blinded for life. "YOU BASTARD!" she sobbed, half-delirious in pain. "YOU FUCKING BASTARD!" She punched at him, but he evaded her with ease. "FUCK YOU! I'LL KILL YOU!"

"Stop yapping," Sasori snapped, kneeing her in the sternum. Spittle flew from her mouth, nearly landing on his shoes. "Hmph." He grabbed her by the hair and brought his other knee into her face with a great force, shattering her nose and cheeks. What a miserable waste of space she was.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Deidara launch a man half-way across the room. He landed in a bucket of cotton, the lucky bastard, but then an old man that'd been hiding nailed him in the head with a piece of metal. The gangster was out like a light.

Forming chakra neko-tes, Sasori whisked through them, cutting them in places that they probably thought he wouldn't be able to reach. Men fell as their tendons and ligaments were severed, bashing their heads on the concrete ground. When the others saw him, they ran back to Orochimaru, who'd mostly been standing around as his followers fought.

"Enough fighting!" Sasori shouted over the nose, making his way to the front to face Orochimaru. The workers behind him had stilled, allowing the remaining gangsters to flee back to Orochimaru. Ukon jabbed at Sasori, only for the puppeteer to kick him away, sending him sprawling at his leader's feet.

"The chicken rice man?" Orochimaru said, incredulous at what had just transpired.

Sasori deadpanned. After all that had happened, this was what Orochimaru remembered about him? Though, it wasn't surprising. Orochimaru was quite a tasteless, artless, uncultured swine, in Sasori's opinion.

"Chicken rice man?" Deidara pushed through the crowd and sauntered up to them, stopping beside Deidara with her arms crossed. "If you think chopping chicken is all he can do, you're in for a surprise, un."

"Weren't you pregnant?" someone asked. It was a member of Orochimaru's old group, part of the people that had been there the day Orochimaru arrived in Akatsuki.

It was Deidara's turn to be wholly unimpressed. "Do I look pregnant?" I can't believe that bastard mixed me up with Izumi. For goodness sake; Deidara had light hair, while Izumi's hair was dark.

He wisely did not reply. Rin, who was standing at the front, some ways behind Deidara and Sasori, narrowed her eyes hatefully at Orochimaru.

"No wonder they dare to resist," Orochimaru hissed at Sasori, gaze flickering between him and the blonde woman by his side. "They've found a bodyguard, it seems. You indirectly spurned me the day I arrived in Akatsuki, and now you want to mess with me again? Trying to chase me away?"

"That's exactly what I'm trying to do, yes," Sasori said dryly. "Do you want a medal?"

Orochimaru twitched. If Tayuya hadn't passed out from pain, she would have shrieked something at Sasori, no doubt. "Have you ever been hungry every day?"

"Everybody is hungry nowadays, un," Deidara answered evenly. "Don't try to present yourself as some sort of victim, you bastard."

"The first day I came to Akatsuki, I told myself that I would never be hungry again," said Orochimaru, staring at the woman. "I will never be hungry again! All of you," he whipped around, "kill them."

There was a wordless flurry of activity from both sides. The workers hastily got into defensive positions, while Orochimaru's lackeys got into wobbly stances. Most of them hadn't had any formal training.

"I told you to kill them!" Orochimaru snapped when none of his followers made a move.

Hurriedly, the remaining men pushed their coats back, revealing axes hanging precariously on their belts. They removed their axes and waved them around threateningly, causing the workers to gasp and huddle back.

"You're not touching them," Deidara said coldly. "Not until we're dead, un."

It suited Orochimaru just find, and he stood back and allowed his axe-wielding henchmen to charge at Sasori and Deidara.

"I have your back," she whispered to him as they got closer.

"And I have yours," he returned, his brown eyes fixed on the men in front of him.

The men yelled and slashed their weapons at them, but they never hit their mark. Deidara and Sasori avoided all of their attempts at hurting them, working in tandem to take down each and every one of the men. They sufficiently covered each others' blind spots as well—Deidara caught the wrist of a man trying to bring down his axe on Sasori's shoulder; Sasori returned the favor by slicing the neck of a man trying to kill her open.

Sasori kicked the knee of a man, causing him to buckle. A white clay spider flew out of seemingly nowhere, landing on the man's face and promptly exploding. It wasn't a large one—it didn't even have a radius of five inches—but the stench of charred flesh and brain matter filled their noses.

Was that her first kill? he absently wondered. He doubted it.

They had taken down the last of the axe-men when Orochimaru picked up a bamboo fork hoe, glaring furiously at them.

Sasori rolled up his sleeves to match Deidara's, holding up his hands in a traditional Suna stance.

Orochimaru slashed at them with rake end of the hoe, which they dodged, jumping to opposite sides. Deidara grabbed her own makeshift weapon—a bamboo pole—while Sasori was content to simply elongate and coagulate his chakra neko-tes.

She struck at Orochimaru with the pole, only for him to deflect it and jab the blunt end of his hoe at Deidara's stomach. Deidara jumped backward, using the pole to vault herself onto the side. It was then Sasori entered the battle again with his neko-tes, slashing and parrying Orochimaru's hoe with the chakra constructs.

The metal screeched when it clashed with his neko-tes, causing everyone observing to wince and cover their ears. Sasori's gaze was fixed on Orochimaru's enraged face, not a hint of warmth in his brown eyes.

whoosh! sounded, and Deidara's pole came down on Orochimaru's shoulder with whip-like force. He grunted and turned one eye to her while trying to avoid being cut by Sasori's scalpels.

Cornered, Orochimaru looked around, only to see all of his followers down for the count, Deidara with her staff pointed at him, and Sasori with his chakra claws at the ready.

Deidara struck, becoming a blur—

She scowled when Orochimaru lifted his hoe up to deflect her blow, carefully dodging Sasori's scalpels at the same time. Twisting in the air, Deidara landed back on the ground, bringing the pole down to land on his foot. He jumped out of the way just in time for the pole to land on the ground with a slap and for Sasori's claws to miss his eyes by a hair.

"Deidara!" Sasori barked out.

"Right!"

Sasori landed on the end of Deidara's pole and she used momentum to vault him upward and forward, his arms stretched out to slice Orochimaru into ribbons. The two men were now falling in midair. Orochimaru veered to the side and Sasori's claws cut his right side from shoulder to hip, blood flying through the air.

He could not match the two of them. He was weaker than before, having not fed or slept well in a long while.

Deidara slammed the butt of her pole into the concrete. "Let's finish this, un."

"I was thinking the same," Sasori said, his neko-tas twitching in anticipation.

They charged at him one more time, working like clockwork. Orochimaru's block was easily penetrated, and Deidara slammed the side of the pole against his head.

Orochimaru howled in rage and agony, clutching his ear, which had begun to bleed.

He never saw Sasori coming.

The man slashed his throat open with vengeance in his eyes.

"Don't feel too bad," Sasori said woodenly, watching Orochimaru flop to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut. "Be glad that it was not Obito who killed you. You threatened his family, and it's something he would have never forgiven you for."

He died a moment later without any fanfare or dramatic last words. A cut throat generally took away the ability to do either of those things.

"Well," Rin's voice echoed after a few more seconds of shocked silence, "let's start the clean up."


The bodies had been cleaned away nicely when their entire street was suddenly stormed by Tsukigakure soldiers.

Chapter Text

 

Hanabi whirled around in confusion as civilians ran past her, carrying all their valuables in their arms.

What the hell is going on? Her mind started to race, and, before she knew it, she had grabbed the shoulder of one woman and spun her around. "Madam," Hanabi said hastily. "What's happening? Why is everyone running away?"

"Don't you know?" The woman was itching to get away. "There are soldiers marching toward the Uchiha-Nohara factory with vehicles and guns! Unless you want to be caught in the crossfire, you'd better come with us!"

"What?!" Hanabi yanked her wrist from the woman's grip. "No—no, you go ahead. Don't worry about me—I can take care of myself."

From all the time she had spent talking to Ino, she knew that the blonde girl had friends there. What was going to happen to them? Hanabi swallowed a lump in her throat and sprinted down the streets, dodging men and women running the opposite direction.

She turned a corner just in time to see the street flood with Tsukigakure soldiers. It was just like the woman had described—the enemy had the factory workers cornered. Terrified workers were roughly escorted out of the building and into a space surrounded by armed soldiers.

Hanabi slunk back into the shadows, heart pounding. This was even worse than she had imagined. She had to do something… but what?

Get Itachi, a small voice in her mind advised. Itachi would know what to do. But Itachi had gone out today to deliver supplements to a family living above ground, and she had no idea where he was. The city was big—there was no way she'd be able to find him in time. Sakura, was her next thought, and the second-best choice. With no time to waste, Hanabi dashed off to the direction of the beer hall. Find Sakura and tell her what's going on.

She was nearly there when someone grabbed her arm. "Now what do we have here?"

Hanabi jerked to a stop, turning her head around to see a man—an off duty soldier?—who was obviously under the influence of alcohol. "Let me go!" she spat, lifting her leg and nailing him across the face. He groaned before falling backward with a thud.

She ran through the narrow alleyway that led to the beer hall, skirting around a corner to see a sight for sore eyes.

"Itachi!" Hanabi didn't even bother with honorifics anymore.

He turned, blinking in surprise. "Hanabi-san?" The Uchiha was with a small family made up of an old woman, her pregnant daughter, and a young boy.

"Uchiha-sama," the pregnant woman said worriedly. "What's going on? Is she part of the Underground village you spoke of?"

Oh, so they were new recruits. Hanabi shook her head. She didn't have time to be distracted. "It's Obito's factory! It's being stormed by soldiers—the entire street is flooded with the enemy!"

Itachi cursed—it was one of the rare times and she knew nothing good could come out of this situation. Urgently, he gave the pregnant woman and her mother a gentle nudge forward. "Keep going straight until you see a building with the Tsukigakure flag draped over the overhead sign. It should be on your left. Go immediately to the black-haired woman at the bar—she is called Sakura, she'll know what to do."

"Uchiha-sama—" The woman bit her lip, cutting herself off. "Okay. Okay, thank you. Please be safe!"

"Okaa-chan?" Her son glanced up at her. "What's going on? Where's he going?"

The woman didn't answer, simply leading him and her mother in the direction Itachi had provided.

Itachi swept past Hanabi, his garb fluttering behind him somewhat. "Stay behind me."

Hanabi nodded affirmatively, and the two set off toward Obito's factory at top speed.


"Scram! Hurry up!" a soldier barked as he smacked the sides of the civilian workers in an attempt to get them to move out of the building faster. He scowled when a red-haired man about a head shorter than him didn't even flinch, instead walking ahead with a neutral stare.

Women cried out in fear as the enemy moved their rifles in the air, doing an awkward jog-run to catch up with the rest of the now prisoners. They were herded into a space surrounded by soldiers, like cattle.

"All of you!" Mizuki, on a crutch, roared. "Shut up!"

Deidara, who was squished between a chubby woman and Sasori, stiffened, despite not knowing just what the man had blurted out.

Sasuke was pushed forward by a few officers, and, scowling, he translated, "All of you, don't say a word! Got it?"

They quietened.

Shit. Deidara couldn't really see past the men standing in front of her, but things were quickly going to shit. Why did these soldiers have the worst timing? They had just defeated Orochimaru and his henchmen and now they were in the face of another, deadlier enemy.

"You," Mizuki pointed at Rin, who was at the front of the group. "Come here."

A rifle poked into her back and Rin reluctantly stepped forward, grimacing.

Something about her demeanor must have pissed off Mizuki even more than he already was, as he kneed her in the stomach. When she curled into herself, wheezing, he slammed the baton on her shoulder and arm repeatedly. "Where is Uchiha Itachi?! Tell me!"

"RIN!" Deidara shouted, pushing her way through the barrier of workers. "DAMMIT, GET OUT OF MY WAY!"

A hand caught hers, and she looked back furiously at Sasori.

"Don't," he hissed. "They won't kill her—don't attract attention to yourself."

"You expect me to stand here and just—!"

Sasuke was suddenly leaning over Rin, saying, "He's asking you!" Then he crouched down and hefted her up by the arm. "Are Daichi and Hikari at home? Please, hang in there. I'll figure out something."

"Sas—Sasuke?" Rin, disoriented, muttered. "Y-you traitor..."

Mizuki shoved Sasuke aside and started hitting her with the baton again. "Out of the way, fool! Speak, you useless woman! Speak up, you wretch!" He lifted the baton up, preparing for a debilitating blow.

"Deidara—!"

The woman leaped forward, catching the baton with one hand. "Don't touch her, you fucker!"

Sasori was by her side immediately, pulling her back and subconsciously wrapping his body around hers to shield her from a rain of bullets. I swear, if she gets the both of us killed

Mizuki looked like he was going to explode with anger and order the soldiers to do whatever the hell they wanted when a black blur whooshed through the two guarding soldiers on the left, skidding to a stop with his arms raised up when more soldiers aimed their rifles at him.

"I'm here!" Itachi rarely raised his voice, surprising Sasori and Deidara. At once, he saw Rin's fallen form, Sasori and Deidara being held back from reaching her by rifles pressing into their sides. "Rin—"

Someone slammed the butt of their gun against his head and he stumbled, allowing more soldiers to push him forward to his knees. One pressed the muzzle of their rifle against the back of his skull, preparing to shoot at the given order.

"WAIT!" Sasuke was there again, standing protectively over Itachi. "Please wait!" Gritting his teeth, he crouched down and prepared to swap languages to speak to his brother, but Itachi spoke first.

"Otouto," Itachi said, his voice filled with an urgency that both terrified and exhilarated the younger Uchiha, "tell Madara that the workers are innocent. Ask him to release them."

"I told you not to come back!"

And I told you to be safe, but I'm not so blind as to miss the bruises on your face. "Tell him!" Itachi bit out.

"You piece of shit!" Mizuki kicked at Sasuke with his good leg, causing him to roll out of the way. He then turned his baton on Itachi, preparing to whack him senseless. He got a few blows in before pulling out his favorite Nambu pistol, the one that had killed another Uchiha before Itachi.

"Hold it." Madara, previously content to watch his adviser rip into the citizens, emerged from the vehicle he had arrived in. He pushed Mizuki's arm down and stared down at Itachi.

Mizuki was stunned. "He dare to push me out of the way to get to that bitch. Can't we put him to death? The blonde and the red-head can be next."

"I know what I'm doing. Sasuke."

Sasuke sat up, tensing. "Yes, sir."

Madara didn't even spare him a glance, his eyes still fixated on Itachi's form. "Since the day you resisted the Tsukigakure army, you've already been a dead man." He chuckled lowly. "But you are talented. You can be useful to us. So I'll give you one chance to be loyal to Empress Kaguya. Teach our army Ame martial arts. That way, we might still spare your life."

Slowly, as to not have his own comrades pull the trigger on him, Sasuke crawled forward to Itachi. "He wants you to teach the Tsukigakure people taijutsu, or he will execute you."

Itachi stared up at Madara defiantly, giving no indication that he had even heard the consequences Sasuke had relayed to him. "I refuse. I will not teach the Tsukigakure army anything." His eyes flickered red for a second, causing Madara to narrow his own and return the gesture. "You want to see me fight so badly? Then I'll fight with you tomorrow, in the morning."

Sasuke froze. Aniki... you can't be serious! His eyes were faraway as he gradually got to his feet.

"Fight?" Sasori murmured. "With the general?" He could feel Deidara, pressed against him, tense even more. He smirked. "I always knew Uchiha were insane."

"He said..." Sasuke rose up to his full height. "He would think about it."

Liar, Deidara immediately pinned. But it was the good kind of lie—if he had told the whole truth, Itachi would probably already be dead. Seeing as the soldiers were distracted by what was happening, she carefully crouched down and reached her hand out toward Rin, who took it. Rifles were crossed over their heads, but she knew they wouldn't care too much.

"He wants to have a duel with Madara-taisho," Sasuke added, eyebrows furrowed. "Tomorrow morning."

Madara stepped back and turned in a dismissive gesture. "Take him away."

Sasuke's chakra was stricken, Itachi could tell, and he allowed his brother to pull him up. Almost instantly, the closest Tsukigakure men had their rifles pressed to his back, forcing him to walk to a vehicle.

He had to do one last thing.

"Sasori!" Itachi called. "Take the people of the Underground away from Akatsuki! Take them to—!" The workers, seemingly empowered by his words, started to murmur and shout, raising their hands up in open defiance.

"Uchiha-sama!" they shouted, their souls carrying across with their words. "UCHIHA-SAMA!" They pushed against the soldiers, but they didn't get any further until a warning shot was fired into the air, silencing them.

The soldiers disappeared with their vehicles and guns, leaving the street void of any Uchiha. The stunned silence was deafening.

Sasori stared into the night, watching the last vehicle vanish behind a winding street.

"Danna?" Deidara, who was supporting Rin, blinked at him tiredly. "What do we do now?"

Yes, what would they do? Even if the soldiers had left them alone for now, they weren't safe here anymore. The only safe haven was—

"We're going to the Underground," Sasori decided, raising his voice. "All of you, follow us. We'll take you somewhere safe."

"Somewhere safe?" A hysteric young man echoed. "Where's 'safe' anymore, huh?! Unless you plan to shoot us off into the sky, there's nowhere safe!"

A clamor began at his words, people starting to doubt the prospect of safety.

"Who are you, anyway?" one woman demanded. "Before all this, you were just the man at the chicken rice shop! We didn't even know you could fight! Why should we believe you?"

Oh my god, how dumb are these people? Deidara fumed. It was Sasori (and her) who had saved their hides from Orochimaru. They had trusted their own bodies and lives with them, so why—

"They're spooked," Rin muttered, as if hearing her thoughts. "Just little over an hour ago, they beat Orochimaru, a grandmaster. They thought they were unstoppable... But now, they've seen our true enemy. Orochimaru was a victim, just like the rest of us."

"I don't care, un," Deidara said lowly. "They're still idiots."

"Hey!" Naruto shouted. "Shut up, all of you! Without him, we'd be snakeskin, dattebayo!"

Even with his loud voice, Naruto's support was drowned out by doubtful noises, and Sasori was growing increasingly frustrated. They were wasting time! The longer they stood out here debating on trivial matters, the more time the soldiers had to turn around and capture or kill them all.

"What is wrong with you people?!" Tenten's voice carried across clearly, and she pushed her way to the front of the crowd and turned to face them. "Naruto's right—we'd ought to be more grateful."

"I agree with Tenten!" Rock Lee swiftly added. "Sasori-sama has not failed us yet!"

"Yet!" someone mimicked. "But he will! Nowhere's safe! I'd rather die here than in a dank sewer somewhere."

"You'd sit here and wait for death?" Deidara mocked. "You're such a coward, un! I'd rather die alone knowing that I at least tried to survive rather than rolling over and accepting my fate!"

The squabbling grew to new heights, and Sasori's patience had been worn thin.

"ENOUGH!" he bellowed. "I'm tired of waiting for all of you idiots to shut the hell up! I don't care if you're coming or not; I'm not forcing anyone to come." He turned around, the wind chilling his flushed cheeks. "Stay here and die like fodder, if you want. Like I said, I don't care. Those who want to live, hurry the fuck up. I don't want to be kept waiting any longer." He'd helped them before because he felt like he owed Obito, who had been one of his only friends, something. But now, it was do or die. He would not be dragged down.

He stalked off, not even waiting for Deidara or Rin. He would fulfill Itachi's request by having the Underground leave the city, then return to fetch his grandmother and the Yamanaka girl.

"My friends," Rin said, just loud enough for them all to hear. "I have my utmost trust in Sasori, but I can't expect you all to feel the same way. Those who want to stay, stay. I won't begrudge you for it. But..." She straightened without Deidara's help, wincing at the pain that wracked her body in waves. That damned white-haired asshole had done a number on her. "I'm going. The least I owe my children," which reminded her—she needed to go fetch them before she left for the Underground, "is a chance of survival."

"I'll come with you," Deidara immediately offered, looking back once to see Sasori becoming a small figure in the dark. "Anyone who's going with him, hurry up before you lose sight of him."

The group split. It was quite a heartbreaking thing, if one looked at it the right way. The ones who wanted to stay were mostly old and couldn't travel far, or young and foolish. Tenten, Lee, and Naruto all went after Sasori, along with a few others. Konohamaru, Udon, and Moegi followed a heartbeat later, albeit more reluctantly.

Twelve of them chose to stay behind.

Rin glanced at them one last time before she and Deidara set off in the opposite direction. She hoped that Daichi and Hikari wouldn't be too stricken when they saw the forming bruises on the right side of her face.


"Madara-taisho, do you really want to fight with Uchiha Itachi?" Mizuki questioned as he and the general walked down a dimly lit corridor in their headquarters.

"Of course," Madara answered shortly. "He is an expert, but he doesn't seem like he wants to teach the Imperial Army.

"He must have other motives trying to fight with you." Mizuki hobbled after his superior, his crutch clicking on the floor. "Taisho... don't fight with him. Let me simply shoot him dead."

Madara stopped in his tracks, and Mizuki nearly slammed into his back. Instead, he managed to catch himself just in time, and awkwardly maneuvered himself to stand next to the general.

"He challenged me to a fight," the general said haltingly. "Because he thinks he's better than me. If I refuse the challenge..." Madara mockingly lifted his finger to his head and made a firing motion. "... And shoot him instead... isn't that the same as admitting defeat? Hm?"

"But...!" Mizuki grimaced. "Fighting with an Ame man... is not just a matter of personal honor to you. It has to do with the national honor of our empire—"

"Are you saying that I will lose?"

Mizuki looked down. "I... only fear for the worst."

"I will win," Madara growled. "And the whole of Ame will know that I won."

"Yes. I understand."


The prison door opened with a metallic squeal, and Itachi turned his head ever so slightly. A gradual footfall reached his ears, and Itachi saw the toe of Madara's boots appear before the man himself.

Madara stood at the doorway for a few heartbeats before walking into the room, the prison door closing behind him.

Itachi's eyes followed the slow-moving figure, lingering on the tray of food he held in his hands. The general stood with his back straight, his wild mane falling partway across his face. He narrowed his eyes when Madara lowered himself into a seiza, placing the tray on the ground before Itachi and pushing it forward.

Their gazes met, and the general spoke. "Instead of killing you, I want you to teach us." Itachi lowered his gaze, staring at the concrete floor in front of him. "This is because I appreciate your talent. However, I do not think that Ame martial arts are better than Tsuki's. We will fight in front of everybody. We need a fair tournament."

Itachi's eyes darkened as he deliberated his response, his brain working to comprehend the sounds he had heard before. "You invaded our country and killed our people." He still answered in his own tongue. Still sitting in his cross-legged position, the muscles in his shoulder rippled as he leaned forward and pushed the tray away from him, as if the food was disease-ridden. "Don't be a hypocrite."

Another staring contest ensued before Madara stood and left the room, leaving Itachi with only himself for company.


She hadn't always supported her husband in his taijutsu pursuits. For both of them, taijutsu was supposed to have been just a hobby and a means to defend themselves and their future children. But she knew... Izumi knew that Itachi had a love for martial arts that could not be quelled or contained by anyone, not even her. Mostly, she'd ignored it. They were both still young—Itachi would have had plenty of time to grow out of it. So she had dealt with it with a genial smile, despite spiting the art for monopolizing her husband's time.

She could not believe that she had ever been so naive.

Especially when Hanabi, on the verge of hysterics, her normally stoic mask completely shattered, burst into the clearing that announced that Itachi had been captured by the enemy, and that he would duel General Madara tomorrow morning. Her heart had jumped, and then completely dropped to her stomach when Sasori returned with new, worn faces, supporting Hanabi's story. Deidara, Rin, and the latter's two children came next.

"They came after us because they knew that Itachi had connections to Obito," Rin said frustratedly as Sakura treated her wounds with chakra, ointment and gauze. The brown-haired woman was clearly in pain, but other things took precedence.

"His last wish was for all of us to escape the city," Sasori told them. "Shikaku, how is the seal looking?"

"We've nearly cracked it," Shikaku, who, along with this son, had been summoned from his accommodations by the noise, reported. "Give us until the morn, and we'll have it unsealed."

Sasori nodded approvingly. "Good. Then we leave as soon as that happens."

Everything seemed to be in order to Sasori, but—

"What about Itachi?" Hanabi voiced the question everybody was wondering. "He'll be fighting tomorrow morning. We... can't just leave."

"Exactly," Izumi added, her voice hard. She swallowed a lump in my throat. "I don't think any of you have any idea about what kind of disservice I've done my husband. Sasori, this," her voice cracked, "this could be his last battle. You can't whisk me away without letting me see it." Her beautiful, kind husband who had been captured in order to grant innocent people freedom. "I won't stop anyone else from leaving, but I'm staying here until..." She shook her head, the low, loose bun she wore her hair in loosening even further.

"Pardon me," a pregnant woman said softly. Her name was Asagi, and she'd been brought here by Itachi before he was captured. "I know all of you are probably more acquainted with Uchiha-sama than I, but my family owe him our lives. We should not abandon him."

"I say that we leave!" a man cried. "If we can get away with our lives, why shouldn't we?"

There were cries of outrage at that, especially from Izumi.

Oh, gods. Sasori nearly groaned. If this kept going any longer, it would just be a repeat of what had happened before. "Look," Sasori said flatly. "I can't force anyone to leave. Anyone who wants to watch tomorrow's battle will be free to do so." It was almost exactly the same thing he had offered Obito's people. "I'm not going anywhere until the seal is finished. After that... just try not to keep me waiting."

They dispersed after that, most of them turning in for the night. Sasori, Kisame, Shikaku, and Shikamaru, dubbed the 'Sealing Team' by a few uncreative people, left camp for the sealed iron wall.

Deidara, Rin (and her children), and Izumi settled into the small building that Izumi and Itachi normally stayed in, and were joined by Sakura and Ino not long after.

"I suppose none of you are going to be leaving?" Sakura asked, taking in their stoic faces.

Deidara lazily raised her right hand. "Itachi saved my ass but got his own captured. If I can help it, he'll be leaving the ring alive tomorrow."

"Actually," Rin, who was absently stroking her daughter's hair (the little girl was asleep on her lap and using her shoulder as a pillow—Daichi was sitting between Deidara and his mother, his head propped on Deidara's left shoulder as he slept) corrected Sakura, "I'll be staying; my children... they need me, miss..."

"Oh!" Sakura straightened. "Sorry about that. I'm Haruno Sakura, and this is Yamanaka Ino. We're... not really acquainted, are we? This must seem really rude—sorry."

"Stop rambling, forehead," Ino joked in an attempt to act as a foil to Sakura's flustered disposition. "Maybe Sennin Tsunade does it differently, but this isn't how you're supposed to make friends." She bowed her head slightly. "Hi, I'm Yamanaka Ino. Please excuse my socially stunted best friend."

Sakura was scandalized. "Socially stunted! I'll have you know, I was very popular at Konoha's hospital when I was still an intern—"

"You're only proving my point, forehead."

Sakura made a frustrated noise, causing Deidara to bark out a laugh and Izumi to stretch her lips in a grin. Even Rin, after all she had gone through today, managed a tired, amused smile.

"Don't sweat it, yeah," Deidara assured them. "We're all sitting in the same boat here. Might as well get friendly. Besides, we've all met each other at least once, even if it's just passing each other in the streets, un."

"Once we leave Akatsuki," added Rin, playing with a lock of her daughter's hair, "we're probably going to need to support each other."

They made small talk before Sakura finally addressed Izumi with a solemn look. "Izumi, as your medic, I strongly advise you not to attend tomorrow's battle, even as a spectator. You're going to give birth any day now. Normally, I'd forbid you, but that'd get me nowhere with you."

"Damn right." Izumi scowled.

"You know," Rin suddenly spoke up. "She's right. I know you want to be there for him, but the baby... Honestly, I think that's really selfish of you, Izumi."

There was a pregnant pause.

"Sorry," Izumi apologized. "I guess I'm just that kind of person."

"You stupid hard-head," Deidara muttered, elbowing her. "Stay by me at all times, okay? And Sakura, if you can be there—"

"Oh, trust me," Sakura growled. "If this one thinks she can get rid of me that easily," a snort from Izumi, "she's got another thing coming for her. I swear, if you weren't pregnant and therefore a perpetual patient, you'd have received my fist to your face a long time ago."

"Wow, um." Ino sweatdropped. "I guess this is what happens when you study under Tsunade-sama, huh...?"

"I still can't believe that this is happening," Rin said after a few moments. "It... went by so quickly."

She got a few nods from the others.

"I'm going to steal a line from Shikamaru here," Ino quipped. "This is such a drag."

"Hah." Deidara snorted. "'Drag doesn't even begin to cover it, un." She sat up straighter, leaning against the wall. "You're Hitomi's sister, aren't you?"

Ino startled. "Y-yeah. Why?"

And Deidara smiled. Widely. Finally, she'd been waiting for this moment. How mad was Hitomi going to be when she found out that Deidara found Ino before she did, despite her daring escape attempt? "Good, because I just want to let you know that Hitomi's alive and doing pretty well, un."

"Really?!" Ino gasped, not even fazed when Rin shushed her (Hikari had stirred). "T-that..." She looked down at her hands, shocked. Her eyes were still wide even when tears collected at the corner of her eyes. "Where is she?"

"She's been staying with me," Deidara answered. Then she winced guiltily. "I left her at Chiyo-baa-sama's place, but they should both be fine. They aren't under any scrutiny from the army, even if Danna—Sasori—is." Everything had happened so fast that she had almost entirely forgotten about Chiyo and Hitomi. No matter—they would be fetched and brought down here tomorrow.

Ino's face puckered. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that. I don't really want to kick the crap out of the person who saved my sister, after all." Inwardly, she was jumping with joy. Hitomi was alive!

"Maa," Rin placated. "We should all get some sleep. Big day tomorrow and all," she added awkwardly, not looking at Izumi, whose face had gone blank.

They agreed. The candle in the middle of the girl's circle was blown out, and darkness enveloped them all.


The truck hummed.

"Just a routine run!"

The soldier was unfazed. "Yeah, go ahead. I got you."

They drove off before parking the truck behind shrubbery.

"What now?"

"We wait."

"... I can't believe those idiots didn't even realize that there was another group in the sewers until recently. Dense assholes."

"You can't blame them too much. There's only two of them working down there, and they've got two little girls to look after."

"Hmph. I'll blame whoever I want. They were too late—now shit's gone down. At least now, they're ready, right?"

"Honestly? We can only hope."


The Tsukigakure flags waved lazily in the wind. Underneath the great, gray morning sky, men and women gathered, speaking excitedly—all of them were heading toward what was once the heart of the city: Akatsuki Square.

"I heard the Tsuki people are fighting the Ame people!" one man said to another. Even in its reduced state, the grapevine was still functioning as well as it possibly could.

"Who's fighting?" his friend asked.

"Uchiha Itachi!"

"Uchiha Itachi?! The master of Amaterasu?!"

"Yes! Look—the entire square is sealed up. But look at the soldiers—I think they're preparing to let us all in soon."

Akatsuki Square was indeed sealed, and on the top level of Chiyo's Chicken Rice, the shop's namesake and a young Yamanaka girl were watching proceedings from below, the former's eyes narrowed.

What are these dogs up to now? Chiyo thought angrily. Defiling Akatsuki's heart...! She had woken up this morning to find an absent grandson and future daughter-in-law. Needless to say, she was not pleased.

They seemed to be setting up and arena of some sort. A fight was going to take place here. Of that, Chiyo had no doubt. But who would be fighting? She supposed that she would just have to wait and see.

"What's happening, baa-sama?" Hitomi whispered, as if she feared the Tsukigakure soldiers down below would hear them.

"I don't know," Chiyo admitted. "We'll just have to see..."


"Dammit!" Kisame roared. "There's only eight symbols left and it's not cooperating!"

It was already morning, and the Sealing Team hadn't slept at all. People who had decided to stay—which included all of the orphans, Rin and her children, and Asagi's family (Sakura had persuaded at least one pregnant woman last night)—were already gathered in front of the sealed iron wall.

"What's taking so long?" a woman asked worriedly, clutching her shawl tighter around her shoulders.

"Calm down," Rin soothed. "They're working as quickly as possible. Sealing is very delicate—we can't rush them."

"Okaa-san, where's Deidara-nee?" Daichi asked, a sullen look on his face. "Why isn't she here?"

"She'll be back soon," Rin told him. "She just has something to do outside."

"I bet she's going to save Itach-oji!" Shogo piped up, breaking free of his mother's grasp and sidling next to Daichi. The boy was just five years old; Daichi had three years on him. "Right, okaa-chan?"

Asagi smiled wearily down at her son, taking his hand again. "Sure, Sho-kun."

Daichi turned away. "Yeah, whatever…" He's such a little kid… He doesn't know anything about losing people. Of course he's not worried about Deidara-nee. His onyx gaze flickered over to Shogo's young, unmarred face, and his scorn only grew.

"Where's Ino?" Shikamaru, looking worse for wear, turned around to ask Choji.

Choji quickly explained the situation with Hitomi and Ino, and the Nara sighed.

"Typical Ino, rushing in like that. Might as well hurry up before she gets back and starts nagging us…"


Chiyo was right—Akatsuki Square was eventually unsealed once appropriate wooden barricades were put up around the raised makeshift stage. People poured in from every direction, stopping in front of the barricades and the soldiers guarding them.

In the crowd, Sakura was glued by a worried Izumi's side, the latter's belly bulging against the fabric of her loose clothes. Deidara came in after them, talking in low voices with Ino.

"She's in that apartment up there. Above the sign that says 'Chiyo's Chicken Rice'," Deidara told her. From the apartment window, Hitomi brightened and waved down at the two girls. "Ah. She's probably coming down."

"I'll go get her," Ino said excitedly, her eyes gleaming in anticipation. "Stay here and do whatever you need to do."

"Un."

As Ino manoeuvred around the constantly shuffling crowd, careful to avoid the guards on standby, their rifles in hand, Madara got up on stage and moved himself into a seiza position. It was clear that he was waiting for Itachi's arrival, and Deidara's sleeve fell over her hands as she readied herself.

Izumi and Sakura were both craning their necks to search for any sign of Itachi. It was only when Sasuke appeared on a raised wooden construct on the north end of the stage that they stopped to pay attention.

Even Ino halted in her tracks, and Deidara cast a flinty glance in his direction.

The people quietened when the soldiers ordered silence, and Sasuke began to speak, "General Madara says, that in order to strengthen the Ame-Tsuki cultural exchange…" Sasuke looked as if speaking the very words were hurting him. "He and Itachi-sama will be fighting here today in a fair tournament. It will be an exchange of ideas in a friendly manner, and to realize peace between the two countries."

"Fair tournament?" one man scoffed to another. "That sounds too good to be true…"

His friend sneered at Sasuke. "Look at that traitor's face! There's bruises everywhere. Sooner or later, the Tsuki army will kill him like the dog he is."

His words inspired uproar, and Sakura stood in front of Izumi to protect the woman and the unborn child from all the jostling. Ino was not as lucky as to have a meat shield – she was swept away from Chiyo's apartment, much to her annoyance.

In response, the Tsukigakure soldiers pointed their guns and began to shout back, forcing the people of Akatsuki to step backward submissively, quietening their hollers into displeased mutters.


Itachi had four soldiers surrounding him in a seemingly foolproof formation. Two flanked his sides while the other two separated themselves to guarding his front and back. They escorted him into Akatsuki Square, and his presence immediately stirred the people.

"It's him! He's here!"

"Itachi-sama!"

"Itachi-sama has come!"

Next to Sasuke, Mizuki smirked, as if the very notion of the people shouting the master's name was amusing to him. And, to him, it probably was.

Itachi exhaled deeply.


Itachi didn't flinch when Mizuki stormed into his prison cell and tipped the tray Madara had brought him with his good leg, spilling the contents all over the floor.

How bold, Itachi thought. The General left not even five minutes ago.

When Itachi simply kept staring at the wall opposite him, Mizuki saw red.

"What did Madara-taisho talk to you about?" Mizuki demanded. "Was it about the fight?!" Mizuki bared his teeth at the silent Uchiha. "Whatever it is, I really don't care. Listen carefully to me, Uchiha Itachi." He lifted his crutch to wag it at Itachi's face. "If you win the fight, I will kill you immediately with my gun."

Itachi saw Sasuke enter the room before Mizuki did. His younger brother grasped the cane with both hands and pushed it down.

"Remember!" Mizuki bellowed.

Sasuke held up a hand. "He knows!" He took a deep breath, then muttered to Itachi, "Please, don't win the fight with Madara. If you win, he will kill you. Are you listening? Be careful for your life."

Itachi nodded shortly, a small smile adorning his features as he stared down at his hands.

"Otouto… martial arts may be a form of brute strength…"


Itachi let himself be led to the stage, where Madara, watching the younger Uchiha carefully, was waiting.

"… But in our Ame taijutsu system, it embodies our ideals and philosophies. The virtue of our martial arts is benevolence."

Itachi walked up the stage.

"This is what Tsuki will never understand, because they abuse military power and turn it into violence to oppress others."

He turned to face the general. Madara rose from his seiza, the bones in his feet making a satisfying cracking noise.

"This is why they do not deserve to learn Ame martial arts."


"Hanabi?! Why are you here?!" Ino stared at her friend, who was dodging people left and right. "I... I don't think you're going to find her here!"

Hanabi scowled at the blonde. "You think I don't know that?! Ino... I've been searching for Hinata-nee for months now. And everyone's going to be leaving, and maybe it's selfish of me, but I can't stay here! My father has all but entirely given up on everything, and so has my clan! This will be the last place I'll ever look. And if I don't find her..." She let out a sharp puff of breath. "Then it was a lost cause to begin with. Don't try to stop me—I know that here isn't the safest place to be, and I'll get out of here if it gets to dangerous. That being said, what about you, huh?"

"Hitomi's up there," Ino pointed at the designated spot, "I'm going to find her and the old lady inside and get the hell out of here. The seal should nearly be cracked by then."

Hanabi nodded. "Okay. Good luck with that."

"You too."

On the stage, Itachi intertwined his fingers and held both of his hands up in acknowledgement to Madara. He was completely silent, the tear troughs on his face more pronounced than usual. Deidara guessed it was because he probably hadn't gotten any sleep last night. Staying with the enemy tended to have that kind of effect on a person.

To her left, Deidara could see Izumi with Sakura hovering her protectively in a position that would allow the medic to shield the pregnant woman's stomach if need be.

"Anata!" Izumi's voice was nearly drowned out by the noise the people were producing. "Kick his ass!"

"Is that Izumi-chan?" Deidara whipped her head around at the deep baritone that had been produced by the speaker. She blinked in surprise. The Uchiha Clan. Indeed, Uchiha Fugaku and his brethren had come to see what could be Itachi's final duel, despite Deidara's silent promise to get him out of this situation alive. She had her bombs at the ready, and was prepared to let loose if things went badly. Only the men had came, Deidara noticed, which wasn't surprising as the Uchiha were a patriarchal clan, though they did have a few female warriors here and there.

Fugaku emerged from the crowd of Uchiha, coal gaze fixated on his son. His face seemed to be etched into a permanent scowl, but even so, Deidara found him hard to read. What was he feeling? she wondered. Angry? He certainly looks it. Sad? Disappointed? The list was endless, and she didn't have the time to consider all the options.

Sasuke seemed to have seen his father's entrance as well, and stiffened like a deer in headlights before pointedly focusing his entire attention on the fight that was about to unfold before him. Mizuki noticed his discomfort and immediately sneered. It was likely a reflex reaction.

"How rare," an Uchiha commented, "to see the two would-be heirs willingly sharing the same breathing space."

"Some heirs they turned out to be," another muttered.

"Quiet," barked Fugaku, making them both jump and promptly shut up. "Times have changed, and the Uchiha along with it." He caught Izumi's eye just then, and nodded, leaving the woman dumbfounded. She could only return the gesture, numbly.

Madara returned Itachi's acknowledgement, and they both slid into stances that they had practiced for a good portion of their lives. Madara, more heavily built than Itachi, had his shoulders squared, one leg positioned in front of the other. One fisted hand was held out; the other arm tucked slightly near his armpit.

It was almost a completely foreign stance, even for those who had fought against the Tsukigakure warriors at Obito's mansion, including Deidara. She suspected that his form wasn't even of Tsuki origin. Considering that many of the clans had originated from Konohagakure, in the north, it would make sense that Madara was one of the few Uchiha that had stayed there during the Great Migration, a point in history that almost everyone studied at some stage of their lives.

The two warriors in the ring stared each other down. Everybody held their breath and shuffled along to get the best view. Deidara could see Ino reach Chiyo's apartment and be let in by the old woman. Hitomi wasn't with her – she was likely trying to pack everything she owned into one of Sasori's storage scrolls.

Madara blurred forward, and the audience burst into shocked gasps, the general having disappeared to the untrained eye.

Itachi's eyes widened marginally, his Sharingan activating as he narrowly avoided Madara's kick by bending to the side like a willow branch. He flipped once and landed on his hands before pushing himself back to his feet just in time to dodge another attack from the Tsuki general.

One of Madara's punches came too fast for him to dodge, and Itachi caught his fist, feeling the bones in his arm creak. Incredible... He jumped backward, landing on his toes. Not even Hoshigaki Kisame could hit that hard. He ignored the throbbing in his hand and focused on attacking Madara, the image of the general alternating between Mizuki's sneering figure and the outline of Itachi's favorite training post—one that Obito had gifted to him long ago.

The general was no pushover, and met him blow for blow. To the enraptured audience, it seemed like neither of them were able to hurt one another. In reality, however, it was an entirely different story.

Itachi's had not developed his Amaterasu to be a heavy-hitting form, and the disadvantage of fighting with such an art was now seeping through the cracks in his stoic facade. Madara was not taking as much damage as Itachi would have liked, and they both knew that.

A gutteral growl rose in his throat, and Madara broke through Itachi's defences. Lips pulling back into a grimace, Itachi flipped his weight to one side, and Madara's fist clipped his cheek, sending him spinning into the air.

"ITACHI!" he heard someone scream, terrified. His Mangekyou Sharingan was able to capture Izumi's horrified expression as the people's faces whirled around and around in a swirl of dull colors and distorted limbs. He saw the tension in his father's jaw, and the anticipation boiling in Deidara's disposition.

It chilled his blood and froze the marrow in his bones. Adjusting himself in midair, Itachi landed softly far away from Madara, chest rising and falling more quickly than usual.

"It's impressive," Madara said. His voice was softer than Itachi had ever heard it, yet it still retained its grating quality. "You're impressive."

Itachi did not respond, simply gazing at the man with hard, crimson eyes. At some point during the fight, Madara had activated his own Sharingan. Itachi didn't know what trauma the older Uchiha had gone through to receive such a curse, but, somehow, he was not surprised.

He blinked slowly, knowing Madara was still gauging him and would not attack. Behind his eyelids, Madara's face was no longer Mizuki's. Instead, the general had grown extra limbs, and resembled Itachi's training post.

Punch. Deflect. Up. Lift. Backhand. Eyes. Nose. Mouth. Throat.


"Aniki!"

Itachi, ten and the heir to the Uchiha Clan, grabbed one of the arms of his wooden training post to stop it from bashing into the side of his head. Then he turned, an amused smile on his face. "Sasuke. Are you done with your homework already?"

Sasuke nodded vigorously, his side bangs swishing along with the movement. "Hai! Okaa-san made me work on my character writing." His face scrunched up, and Itachi had to chuckle and ruffle his hair.

"Maa, I know how much you hate calligraphy, but you'll thank our mother in the future. She just wants the best for us." His brother was an odd duck, and Itachi wasn't just thinking that because of his unfortunately shaped hair (it would grow out to be tamer in the future, he knew). Sasuke had a love for language, but only the speaking aspect of it. He could imitate accents, and Itachi would recount all the times he had to stop Sasuke from speaking in front of foreign officials, for he knew that Sasuke would try to mimic their brogue.

"I know," Sasuke's voice raised in a whine. "But since I'm done, can you and Shisui-nii come play with me?"

Itachi's face heated slightly as he thought of the plans he had made this afternoon. "Ah... sorry, Sasuke, but I'm meeting with someone today. We just played yesterday. Maybe next time..."

"Huh?! Who?! Your girlfriend?!"

This time, Itachi full-on blushed, turning away from his little brother. "No," he said firmly, hoping there was conviction in his voice. "And you already know her. Izumi-chan from the next street down."

"Ohh. She's nice; she gives me tomatoes from her garden patch. I really like her."

"I'm glad you do." Itachi poked his little brother in the forehead, making him pout. "Because I like her a lot, too."

He walked away then, needing to shower, and Sasuke called after him, "What's that supposed to mean? Aniki, don't be so vague! At least come and show me some cool moves!"

At that, Itachi halted. Well, he did have a bit of time. "Okay, five minutes," Itachi agreed, returning to his training post. "See this, Sasuke? Our clan uses it to practice our family stylethe Uchiha Style. Every Uchiha knows this. Once you turn five, otou-sama will begin teaching you the basics." In actuality, Itachi had started at three, but that was only because he was the eldest, and therefore the heir. Itachi gestured to various points on the post. "This is where the opponents eyes are. These are his arms, and these are his legs..."

Five minutes later, Sasuke looked up at him as solemnly as a four-year-old could. "That sounds very painful, Aniki."

"The Uchiha Style is... brutal," Itachi said carefully.

"I don't really like it then..."

Itachi couldn't help it. A smile tugged at his lips, and he ruffled his beloved brother's hair for the second time that day. "That's okay. I don't really like it either. It's unspoken in Ame that the principle of our taijutsu is benevolence, but the Uchiha Clan have been practicing this style since their days in Konoha." He paused. "Our clan doesn't really like change. But I think that our clan will never survive if we do not have change, which is why..."

Sasuke blinked up at him. "Why what?"

"This style doesn't really suit me," the older Uchiha said in the end. "I've actually started working on a new one, but it's still very much a work in progress."

"Wow! Aniki is so cool!" Sasuke frowned. "But what if your style doesn't work?"

"I'll always have our clan's arts to fall back upon, if the Amaterasu should fail."

Sasuke was content with that answer. "Hehe, Aniki is really kind."


Sasuke's mouth grew dry as he observed Itachi gather his bearings and swap his stance for one that was an amalgamation of the traditional Uchiha Style and Itachi's very own Amaterasu. It threw him back to the day that he had defeated the ten Tsuki warriors in Obito's name—the brutal animal he'd become was slowly surfacing once more.

"Geez, look at you," Mizuki muttered into his ear, his fingers tapping on the holster of his pistol. "So scared for him."

Madara and Itachi begun to fight again, moving faster than ever. At one point, Madara nearly had Itachi falling off the stage, but the man saved himself by twisting his leg around Madara's and flipping back to the center of the stage.

A barrage of blows were exchanged, and they seemed to be evenly matched until something happened.

Sasuke nearly bit his tongue when Itachi struck Madara across the face suddenly, sending him flying backward.

"He did it!" Sakura shouted, jade green eyes wide. "Come on, Itachi!"

Itachi didn't allow his opponent any respite, launching right after him and slamming his knee into his gut.

"Khhh...!" Spittle flew from Madara's mouth, and Itachi used this moment to push his back into one of the four wooden posts on each corner of the stage. And then, he began to beat him.

Itachi was a machine, never wavering. Head. This part represents the head, Sasuke. The back of Madara's skull bashed against the wooden post, causing it to shake intensely. Chest. Arms. Disable his arms; then he can't hit back. Do you see, Sasuke? This is what I really hate most because this is what I will inevitably become.

Itachi's arms twisted around the wooden arms of the pole, striking at an impossibly fast pace.

Blood dribbled from the general's nose and mouth. Mizuki's hand hovered over his gun contemplatively.

His palm almost destroyed the top of the pole.

Itachi struck Madara in the center of his forehead, snapping his head back before hanging forward. Itachi held out his hand in a knife position near the general's throat, as if waiting to strike him down should he fall over.

He didn't.

Itachi stepped back, his hand closing into a fist. His knuckles were red.

Huffing weakly, Madara slid down the pole. He lifted his chin, Mangekyou Sharingan flashing and reflecting Itachi's own Mangekyou.

"Who was it?" Itachi inquired suddenly, back facing Sasuke and Mizuki.

"... He was my brother." Madara's eyes closed. "His name was Izuna."

"Hn."

Chiyo, Ino, and Hitomi emerged from Chiyo's Chicken Rice, the latter two with tears in their eyes.

Hanabi's face fell when she circled the square for the umpteenth time without sighting pale lilac eyes among brown, black, and blue.

"Yours?"

"I didn't lose him. But it was enough."

"Lucky bastard."

Itachi turned away from the fallen general, searching for Izumi's face in the crowd.

It was so quiet, one could hear a pin drop.

Then the crowd erupted in cheers, roaring as loud as they could and thrusting their fists up in the air. Among them were Sakura, Izumi, and Deidara, shouting at the top of their lungs. The Uchiha Clan were silent at first, but when Fugaku shockingly followed the public's example, they did the same. They didn't even stop when the Tsuki soldiers pointed their guns at them and barked for silence.

"ITACHI-SAMA!" someone shouted.

His name was repeated by almost every man and woman.

"ITACHI-SAMA!"

"ITACHI-SAMA!"

Deidara breathed out a small sigh, feeling pride well up in her chest. After all the death, all the destruction... the feeling of hopelessness, this almost feels... She craned her neck upward to see Itachi, his face turned away from hers. Like a small victory... Watching the people cheer for Akatsuki's pride—a dead man, a bruised, beaten girl, a crying woman—This is the kind of thing that makes me happy to be alive to witness, un.

To him, it was just a buzz of noise. Itachi finally found Izumi's face in the crowd. Her expression was one of pure relief, joy, and exhaustion. There were lines on her face that hadn't been there before, but she was beautiful. He took a step toward her—

"NO!"

BANG!

White, hot, blinding pain—

Sasuke wrestled Mizuki to the ground, screaming.

Izumi's face changed from relief to unadulterated horror. The effect was instantaneous and pervasive. Arms which had been lifted into the air in celebration slowly fell back down. Eyes were wide, unable to be torn away from Itachi for entirely different reasons.

The Tsukigakure soldiers stilled considerably, though they still held the Ame people at gunpoint.

Itachi gazed at the hole between his shoulder and his collarbone.

Then he slumped sideways, the distance between him and the ground decreasing dangerously quickly.

Itachi blinked numbly, his entire world tipping to the side. Izumi's disbelieving visage tilted as well. As he fell, the clouds in the sky parted enough for the rising sun to be seen. The light blurred Izumi's face as Itachi, having fallen, allowed for it to shine upon her.

Her lips moved. Itachi couldn't hear anything, but he didn't need to.

'Anata'.

His head hit the ground, and the sky shook.

Everything after that happened at once.


"ITACHI!" Izumi screamed as the crowd surged forward against the barricades, pushing the wooden barriers out of the way. Men wrestled the rifles out of soldiers as everybody fought their way to the front, shouting and screaming from all sides.

"OUT OF THE WAY!" shouted Sakura, shouldering her way through the crowd, her fingers intertwined with Izumi's. "MOVE!"

Hitomi looked up at Ino, scared. "W-what's happening?! Did he die?!"

"This way!" rasped Chiyo, Ino's hand and leading her away from the mayhem. We must find Deidara.

"Nee-san!" Hitomi wailed.

"I'm here, imouto!" Ino hollered. She tightened her grip on the little girl's hand. In her other hand, she could feel callouses and knots on Chiyo's palms.

"I'm slipping!" cried Hitomi, slowly losing sight of Ino and Chiyo as people moved everywhere. Their hands were still connected, but—

"HITOMI!" Her sister's touch disappeared and Ino whipped around frantically before settling her gaze on Chiyo. "Baa-sama, please find Deidara and get to safety! I'm going to find my imouto!"

Chiyo was torn. "Yamanaka—"

But Ino had already vanished into another onslaught of people leaving Chiyo to curse like a drunken sailor and shove her way through the crowd to find salvation. I'm getting too old for this! Is that Deidara over there? A flash of golden blonde caught her eye before dissipating.

Standing higher than everyone else, Sasuke was quickly overpowering Mizuki. Nothing matters anymore! A fury burned in his eyes and Mizuki trembled as he stared into the Mangekyou Sharingan. Sasuke tore the Nambu pistol he loved from his hand and all but stabbed the muzzle into the soft underside of the adviser's chin. Mizuki flailed, helpless.

"Die, you piece of shit," Sasuke spat hatefully, firing. The chakra-enhanced bullet liquefied Mizuki's brain, and his body fell off the wooden construct to be trampled by the rioting citizens of Akatsuki. He dropped the gun and stepped on it with the heel of his boot, destroying the small machinery. By now, the Tsuki soldiers had begun to open fire. Sasuke no longer had a reason to restrain himself; he removed the twin Mauser C96 pistols he had in his holsters and fired at the enemy—Tsuki—with deadly precision honed from years of training. If he hit any civilians, no one but him would ever know.

The barrier in front of Izumi was sent flying into the air and onto a nearby roof, courtesy of a kick executed by Deidara. Their gazes met for a second before the blonde and the raven-haired woman reached Itachi. There was already a pool of blood forming beneath the wound and soaking into his clothes.

"Anata!" Izumi looked desperately to Sakura. "Can you help him? Please!"

"Not here," Sakura stressed, whipping her head around. "If he stays here, it'll be a death sentence!"

"More soldiers are coming!" a woman near the back of the crowd screeched.

They came in swarms. Unarmed civilians would not stand a chance against them, even with outrage running through their veins.

Deidara leaped on stage. "Stand back, un!" Her sleeve whipped upward momentarily, revealing her mouth-palms frantically chewing something. Before anyone knew it, a gigantic explosion detonated at the nearest soldier swarm, vaporizing all of them instantly. It was her biggest explosion—C3—and if anyone innocent got caught in the crossfire, only she would ever know.

In one moment, her's and Sasuke's eyes met. Then they were back to having their own agendas, Sasuke taking his vengeance against Tsukigakure soldiers left and right and Deidara trying to clear a path for Itachi to be carried somewhere safe. The civilians had enough brains behind their ears to move out of the way for Sakura and Izumi. The black-haired (formerly pink-haired) medic lifted Itachi in her arms like he was nothing, testimony to her time spent with Sennin Tsunade. She was careful not to increase the amount of blood flowing from his wound. Itachi blearily opened his eyes almost every time she took a step, the pain keeping him awake.

Which was good, Sakura thought, because she suspected he might have a concussion.

"Katsu!" Deidara exploded another C3 that she had unleashed upon a group of more unsuspecting soldiers. She couldn't see anymore coming. Her cloak flapping around her petite figure from the wind, she sprinted after Sakura and Izumi.

Hanabi suddenly appeared beside her, hardly acknowledging her as they ran side by side to the beer hall.

Danna should have finished the seal by now, Deidara thought frantically. After Itachi is healed, we can

BANG! BANG!

Something fast whizzed past her cheek, and Deidara felt her own blood dripping down her face.

Shit! she inwardly screamed. They're shooting at us! She threw a C2 at them, hoping that it would be enough to ward them off. "KATSU!"

Suddenly, Izumi keeled over, heaving.

"Izumi!" Deidara helped her up, letting out a small "oof" before continuing to run as fast as she could, bullets whizzing by her.

"Con..." Izumi choked on her words, squeezing her eyes shut in pain.

"CONTRACTIONS?!" Sakura all but screamed. "DAMMIT, WE HAVE TO HURRY! Hanabi, where the hell is Ino?!"

Hanabi closed her eyes momentarily before shouting, "Byakugan!" Veins appeared in her eyes, and a look of deep concentration befell her. She became stricken. "She's still in the crowd!"

"NO!" Sakura let out a frustrated noise.

"We'll go back," Deidara decided immediately, "Come on, Hanabi."

The soldiers chasing them startled when the Hyuuga and the blonde suddenly turned back, screaming when Deidara hurled another one of her clay bombs at them, shouting, "Katsu!"

"Your left!" Hanabi shouted.

"Got it, un!"

It was gross, but Deidara jabbed her fingers into a nearby man's eyes, curling them and essentially pulling the soft organs out. Through her hand-mouth, she felt blood on the tongue, but now wasn't the time to be squeamish.

The two girls dove back into the crowd. There were more bodies than there had been before, and the ground was blood-stained. Akatsuki Square had been completely defiled. Sasuke was shooting in a terrifyingly accurate frenzy, felling soldiers left and right. He was shot at as well, but with his Mangekyou Sharingan, he was able to just dodge the bullets.

It occurred to Deidara that Sasuke would not be safe in Akatsuki once this entire fiasco was over. There were over a hundred people that could testify as witnesses to his outright betrayal (if anyone was left alive).

So she called out to him, "Hey, asshat!"

He turned, funnily enough.

And Deidara gave him a mocking wave. "If you don't want your head on a pike, follow us, un!"

Sasuke scowled but Deidara turned away before he could answer.

"Chiyo-baa-sama!" Deidara grabbed the old woman's arm. "Come with us."

"Have you seen the Yamanakas?!" Chiyo yelled, people surging all around them in panic.

Hanabi answered her inquiry. "She's over there!"

The world of Byakugan would only ever be experienced by the Hyuuga. It was one of the things that made being a Hyuuga so special, but right now...

Ino ran to a shaking Hitomi, who had a gun pointed at her chest, the man holding the rifle prepared to shoot out the heart that beat fearfully beneath her breast.

Hanabi started toward them, eyes wide. "Wait—"

A strangled scream echoed through the square.

... Hanabi wished that she hadn't been born a Hyuuga.

Numb with shock, the young Hyuuga lifted her hands to her mouth. This was not the first time she had encountered death, despite her young age. Her mother had died shortly after her birth, and she had killed a few men after the war started, but they had deserved it and they had been strangers.

Hitomi blinked, uncomprehending as Ino slumped to the side, dead. Her heart had been destroyed, having been shot from point-blank range. The bullet had ripped through her chest and...

Oh.

"What is it?!" Deidara demanded, grabbing the Hyuuga by the shoulders and shaking her.

Oh.

Oh.

Hanabi could see bits of shrapnel embedded in Hitomi's heart. The bullet itself had lodged somewhere in her spine.

Hitomi fell backward, mouth wide open in a surprised 'o'. Her eyes stared blankly at the sky, not quite dead yet.

"See..." Hanabi swallowed. "... For yourself."

Moments later, Sasuke shot Ino's killer in the head. It was his last bullet, and he threw his guns away and drew out his katana.

As if some deity in the sky was mocking them, the crowd parted just enough for Deidara to glimpse Ino and Hitomi. She shouted something incomprehensible, dashing toward them. Chiyo went after her, taking a paler-than-usual Hanabi by the hand. Which was good, because Hanabi was certain that she couldn't even walk straight.

"Calm down," Chiyo soothed, squeezing her hand. "Breathe."

Hanabi took a deep breath, feeling her entire frame trembling at the small feat.

Deidara skidded to a stop right next to Hitomi, kneeling beside her. "No..." This can't be happening. Oh, but the cruel fact was that it was happening, and there was nothing she could do but watch her charge bleed to death in Akatsuki's war-torn heart. Hadn't she thought that Hitomi would never last? That she would one day be killed by her own foolishness? How ironic, that the reason for her death would be on the count of Deidara's own carelessness.

I should have never left her there.

Hitomi's mouth began to move. "Am I... going to die? I can't... move anything. My... hands..."

She was six. Deidara wanted to scream at the sky as tears gathered in the corner of her eyes, ready to fall at any moment. She was six, dammit! Six-year-olds weren't supposed to be shot in the heart, or watch their sisters die in front of them!

Hitomi began to weep, tears flowing out of her eyes and dripping down the side of her head. "P-please, I don't wanna die... I don't wanna..." She sobbed. "P-please, I don't wanna die, Ino-nee."

Ino. She thought she was Ino. Somehow, it hit her harder than she thought it would. Her heart twisted in agony, and she let out a low moan, covering her hand with her mouth as tears trailed down her face.

"Get up." Chiyo's voice brought Deidara out of her stupor. "You have to get up, Deidara, it's not safe here. There will be time to grieve later, but we must go!"

The sound of gunshots filled her ears again, and Deidara got off her knees.

"Yeah." Deidara's voice was hoarse. "Yeah, okay."

Sasuke landed beside them, katana bloody. "Deidara-san, where are we going?"

Hanabi and Chiyo would have scowled at his presence, but both were distracted by other matters. Frankly, getting out of the Square alive took priority.

"Just follow us, un." Deidara wiped the last of her tears away with her dusty sleeve, setting her face into a stoic mask.

The group of four merged into the crowd.

Hitomi blinked up at the sky one last time before closing her eyes forever.

The last of the Yamanaka Clan was no more, and she took with her the legacy of the clan.


A pained groan filled the chambers, urging Sasori to work even faster. Izumi had arrived being helped along by Sakura, who was also carrying Itachi. Asagi and Rin, both having experience in the matter, immediately tended to her, telling her to keep count of her contractions and breathe.

"Wait, I have it!" Bless Nara Shikamaru, Sasori thought, his mind already past the point of working on overdrive. He'd probably sleep for the next twenty-four hours if it could be helped.

They were finally done. They had deciphered the seal to be an extremely complicated, rarely seen, and ancient amalgamation. Now just came the part of unlocking it so they could finally leave the city. All their rations and supplies had been packed. It wouldn't be enough to last them a long time in the wilderness, but there would be game to hunt along the way, as well as edible berries and herbs that bloomed during winter.

Sasori was vaguely aware of Deidara arriving along with Hanabi, Chiyo, and Sasuke of all people. Whatever, he would question it later.

The Sealing Team stood back, exchanging nods.

Then—

"Kaifu no jutsu!" they shouted simultaneously.

There was a puff of smoke as the iron wall was unsealed. Then it slid to the side, and everyone who had been waiting for the past forty minutes cheered.

Sasori's shoulders slumped. Finally. Finally, finally. Now they could relax, and—

He stiffened when two figures emerged from the other side of the cavern.

Just like that, the tension returned to their shoulders and many of them took battle stances. Sasori could name some of them, like Mitarashi Anko, and a pair of best friends simply known as Izumo and Kotetsu.

There was a dim light on the other end of the tunnel-like cavern, and one of the figures stepped forward.

Sasori never relaxed, even when he saw his face.

Hatake Kakashi lifted one hand, his eye curving upward as he smiled behind his mask. "Yo!"

Gai came next, and two small girls followed behind him.

"Maito Gai?!"

"Chihiro!"

"Hinata-nee!"

"... You have a lot of explaining to do," Naruto, staring at Kakashi, deadpanned from the back.


They exited the city swiftly and silently, or as silently as a group of sixty or so people—the majority of them being civilians—could. They left the walled city behind them, not even looking back once. Or, well, Deidara didn't, anyway, and neither did Sasori. She knew this because they stayed by each other's side the whole time.

"Did something happen?" Sasori eventually asked, turning his head to look her in the eye.

"Hitomi and Ino are dead." She lowered her gaze. "I'll fill you in later, un." Ahead of them, Shikamaru and Choji walked side by side, oblivious to her words. That bridge would be crossed later.

A particularly painful contraction struck Izumi, and she cried out in pain. Itachi, who Sakura forced to be conscious, was talking her through it. His wound was not completely healed as Sakura hadn't had the time, but Kakashi and Gai (the other figure) had told them that there would be a place safe enough for her to give birth.

"When is it going to come out?!" Izumi's voice rose in panic.

Sakura kept her lips zipped about just how long it could take for the child to be born, focusing instead on soothing her patient's shot nerves.

"Stay strong," Rin told her, rubbing circles on her hand. "It'll all be worth it in the end."

Eventually, they reached the 'safe haven'.

"Shisui?!" Deidara and Sasuke blurted at the same time, Rin not far behind.

Smiling apologetically, Shisui waved to them.

"And Kagami?" Sasuke added, muttering this under his breath.

Naruto glared at Kakashi. "Now you really have a lot of explaining to do!"

Kakashi eye-smiled again. "I suppose I do, don't I?"

Another keening cry from Izumi had all sixty of them scrambling into the large truck that Shisui and Kagami had hidden behind shrubbery.

Shisui entered the driver's seat with Kagami in the passenger seat. The rest all sat in the back of the vehicle, where goods being transported were usually kept.

The skies had been grey when the Tsuki-Ame war had caught up to them. Now, they were still grey when they left the fighting behind.

Someone started to sob with relief.

Many others found themselves joining them.

Deidara's head slumped against Sasori's shoulder. "I'm so tired..."

He closed his eyes, using the position of her head to rest his own. "... I am, too."

They fell asleep right there and then, and only woke when Izumi's baby was born.

The child was a boy, and the very spitting image of his father.

"Where are we going?" Sasuke suddenly asked during the night, speaking to Kakashi.

"Where?" Kakashi echoed before answering, "Maa, where else but Konoha?"

They had a long journey ahead of them.


 

Chapter Text

"Geez, that thing really gives me the creeps."

"Don't stare at it, then, dummy."

"You're so mean to me, Kawai-san..."

"Don't disrespect Kabuto's creation. It's a very advanced form of biological warfare."

"Oh, shut up, Souma. No one gives a shit. This damn war is just a waste of time. I really wish Kaguya would hurry the fuck up and win."

Four scientists were currently behind a window separating them and a body strapped to an operating table.

"Why isn't it waking up?" the only woman, Kawai, said, frowning and pushing up her glasses. "According to Kabuto's data, the spores released in that room should have stimulated it enough for it to become conscious."

"Maybe we should crank it up a bit," Souma recommended, peering over his clipboard.

"No way," said another male scientist. "Bad idea. Abort. Seriously, Souma, don't touch."

"Would you relax?" Takashi scoffed. "It's no big deal."

Kawai's frown deepened. "Hold on..."

"Come on! Get your life together, you fucking plant man!"

"TAKASHI, DON'T! GRR! Look what you've done, idiot!"

"Shut up, Kawai! Don't blame me for trying to get things done!" Takashi glared at the body through the window. "After all that, and it's still not fucking responding. Kabuto was fucking wrong. We should just destroy it."

Suddenly, a vine smashed through the window, wrapping around Takashi's head. It squeezed and squeezed and—

Three scientists screamed as Takashi's head exploded in brain matter and gore, the mess splattering all over them.

Kawai shrieked. "OH MY GOD!"

More vines shot through the now broken window, one impaling Souma in the heart and the other entering the other male scientist's mouth, making him choke on his own screams.

Kawai scurried back, pressing herself against the wall in fear as her colleague writhed in agony before his body was bent in unnatural ways. He finally died when the single vine split into several more, destroying his brain.

Kawai's bladder loosened. The vines reached closer toward her...

And stabbed her in both eyes.


Half of its body was black. The other was white. The creature stared down at itself, examining its—no, his—hands.

Monster.

"No. Zetsu.

"Everything will be Zetsu."

Chapter Text

Shikamaru was not blind or stupid, though he did have his moments at times. Shikamaru, by his own words, was also a yellow-bellied coward who knew when to quit. And if a problem should arise, he would usually ignore until it was on the verge of spiralling out of control.

So when he didn't see Ino leave the Underground with them, he ignored the swirling whirlpool of dread gathering in his belly.

Perhaps Choji felt the same way, or perhaps he was too preoccupied with newfound freedom.

Shikamaru couldn't bear to look at him for too long, lest his silence finally break. As such, it surprised him when Choji was the one who brought it up when everybody got out of the vehicle to take a small break, sitting or standing in the grass.

"Hey, Shika?"

"Hm?"

"Ino… she's not here, is she?"

"… No."

Choji lowered his gaze. "Why didn't we wait for her?"

Shikamaru knew why. He knew that Sakura, Izumi, Hanabi, and Deidara had returned with only one female that certainly wasn't Ino. Hanabi and Deidara had been the last ones to come back, but they would have never deserted her, especially Hanabi, which meant…

"You're crying." Choji's voice wavered.

Was he? Shikamaru blinked, bewildered, lifting up the sleeve of his plain garb to wipe his face. "Huh. So I am."

"Is this what war is?" Choji had never sounded so timid before, not even when the other kids had picked on him for being overweight.

Somehow, Shikamaru felt like it was only the beginning. He closed his eyes, tears clinging to his dark eyelashes.

When Choji began to cry, his large frame shaking, Shikamaru decided, with no small amount of grief, that war was the most troublesome thing ever and he would have preferred his late mother's angry shouts in the morning.

At least that had been normal.


"Why did we bring that traitor along?"

"Calm down, Masami, it's not like we had a choice. He just tagged along and now we can't do anything about it. Especially since Uchiha Itachi is his brother."

"Itachi-sama is a hero. Don't even compare him and that thing."

"Maa, maa, I wasn't, Masami."

Daichi glowered at a nearby tree as disgruntled voices filled his ears. Names hadn't been dropped, but who else could it have been? Uchiha Sasuke was the only traitor among them. He would not blame their ire—Sasuke could not be trusted. He turned on his family far too easily, and was fickle about taking sides.

Seeing Sasuke sitting on a rock and leaning back, cleaning his bloody katana, was a blow to him.

A hand landed on his head, ruffling his hair, and Daichi startled. He tilted his head backward to stare into Deidara's visible eye.

"Hey," she said. "We haven't really talked much, have we?"

Daichi frowned. "What's there to talk about?" he muttered, bitterness seeping into his voice. "It's not like you were there to save otou-san—"

"Don't give me that crap, un."

Daichi recoiled, eyes wide before he glared at her. "You—"

"Stop stewing in your own misery," Deidara ordered sharply. "Have you even seen what people like you become?" She pointed at Sasuke, who was either ignoring them or hadn't noticed. "That guy."

Daichi glared at her for a little longer before his anger crumbled away, replaced by a hollow, searching grief. He slumped against the tree he was leaning on, sliding down. He was lucky the bark was smooth, or it would have torn his shirt.

Sighing, Deidara sat down next to him, tucking a loose strand of blonde hair behind her ear. "You're not the only one who's lost a parent, yeah. Look around you, Daichi…"

He did, scanning each and every one of their faces.

"They're all grieving for something lost, un," she stated sombrely. "Whether it be family members or their old lives."

Daichi pressed his forehead into his knees, his small body shaking as he tried to rein in a sob. He would not cry. He was supposed to be strong with his bitterness and hate, he wasn't supposed to—

Deidara pulled him into a side hug and his entire resolve crumbled. He cried and cried until it felt like he had exhausted all of his tears.

A little girl with wispy brown hair walked up to them, eyes sleepy. "Why is aniki crying?" She had clearly just woken up from a nap. In the distance, Rin was shooting them concerned looks. But she could trust Deidara—she knew that.

"It's nothing," Daichi mumbled, sniffling. "Sorry, imouto."

"Is it because of otou-chan?"

Deidara had to give the girl credit where it was due—children were a lot more perceptive than people thought.

Hikari hugged her brother. "It's okay. I miss him, too. Okaa-chan says he's here," she touched Daichi's chest, feeling his beating heart, "and that he's never going to leave us as long as we remember him."

Daichi's face was completely stricken now, and he began to cry again, embracing his sister tightly. When Hikari started to sniffle, Deidara glanced over at Rin, who had gotten up and was walking toward them.

"Thank you," Rin whispered to her before sitting beside her children, pulling them onto her lap.

Deidara gave her a crooked smile. "It's no problem, un. No kid… should have to go through this alone." She side-eyed Sasuke discretely, but Rin caught it anyway.

"Of course not," the brown-haired woman agreed. Her eyes hardened with determination. "I'll make sure that they'll always be surrounded by people who love them."

Deidara opened her mouth to reply but a shout rang through the air first.

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN SHE'S DEAD?!"


Naruto refused to believe it, glaring harshly at Shikamaru, whose own temper was clearly also being tested. He took a deep breath, lowering this voice. "You..."

"It's true." Shikamaru's voice was tight. "Why else wouldn't she be here?"

Naruto couldn't think of a plausible reason why. So he settled for staring blankly at the grass. No…

"Dobe." Sasuke marched up to him.

"Sasuke-teme. What do you want?"

"He's not lying," Sasuke glanced at Shikamaru, "I saw the man that shot her… and her sister."

"Hitomi, too?" Naruto stared disbelievingly at him, baffled by the tragedy. He felt tears beginning to well up in his eyes, but he bravely held them back. He didn't want to show weakness in front of him.

"Did you kill him?" Shikamaru said suddenly, turning sharply to Sasuke.

A bitter smirk twisted his lips. "I did."

"Good." It didn't come from Shikamaru, but from Naruto. "At least you're good for something, Sasuke-teme."

Sasuke nearly did a double take at that. "Hn." He had a scathing remark at the tip of his tongue, but something about Naruto's words stopped it from escaping. 'At least you're good for something'.

"Hey, brat," Sasori suddenly called to Naruto from the side. "Help me gather firewood."

Naruto hesitated before bounding over to where he was standing with Lee, Tenten, and a beefy man, all of whom had also been recruited for firewood duty.

As the group set off, Sasuke broke away from Shikamaru, returning to the rock where he had been resting earlier. Is that really what all I'm good for? Killing? He scoffed. Naruto doesn't know what he's talking about…

He paused, watching Naruto's blonde head disappear into the trees.

Right?


What a mess. Sasori stepped over a large branch that had fallen, dead wood twisted. Everything would have been easier if we could just go around.

He remembered with a scowl the map that Shikaku had produced. The pathway to Konoha was a dangerous one, what, with the war going on and all. There was a mountain pass smackdab in the middle of the road, and it was one that had to cross. It was too dangerous to go around, through the woods, as there were undoubtedly enemy camps and posts littered in that path.

There wasn't enough fuel in the truck for it to travel all the way to Konoha. Not that it would have mattered, since the truck wasn't made for crossing a mountain, even if it was covered with forest and nice grass. It would become a death trap if they were to attempt it.

So here they were now, a group of sixty—mostly composed of civilians—preparing for their first night out in the woods. They were currently at the base of the mountain. Their rations were dwindling fast. Those civilians ate more than they were worth, Sasori thought with no small amount of disdain. Artless pigs.

"Tenten and Lee, go search west from here, but don't go too far," Sasori ordered them, getting affirmative nods. "Naruto, Hitoshi, you're coming with me. We'll be looking east. When you've gathered enough wood, go straight back to camp."

Hitoshi was a civilian man that just happened to have a larger frame than most martial artists did. Sasori normally wouldn't have minded the fact that Hitoshi was almost two heads taller than him (as well broader), but his personality was… abrasive.

"What are you looking at, tiny?" Hitoshi gruffly demanded when he caught Naruto staring his way.

"Nothing!" Naruto immediately defended himself, scowling. "I thought I saw a bird or something, but it was just a lame vine."

Hitoshi opened his mouth to retort but screamed when something wet and slimy stroked the back of his neck. Whipping around, he caught sight of a wet leaf waving in the breeze. "Did you do that?" he shouted at Naruto. "That was fucking disgusting. It felt like drool."

"Huh?! No way! I was standing right here." Naruto glared fiercely at him. "Look, you bastard, I'm really not in the mood—"

"Quiet," Sasori suddenly said, staring at the leaf. The two males muttered angrily at each other but Sasori ignored them, stepping up to the tree where the leaf was attached to. It was wet, yes, but already drying and crinkled. Unless Hitoshi was exaggerating—

A vine snapped around his wrist and Naruto and Hitoshi both yelled in surprise, nearly falling over themselves. Sasori recoiled, the vine tightening its hold. What the hell is this? Sasori narrowed his eyes and tried breaking its grip by yanking, but it only tightened.

"D-dude!" Naruto stuttered out, face pale. "Y-you think it's some kind of tree ghost?"

"Don't be stupid, brat!" Hitoshi berated, just as pale as Naruto was. "H-hey, Sasori, why won't you say something? Aren't you scared?"

"Shut up," Sasori hissed. "And don't move." He had seen what they hadn't from the corner of his eye. Whatever this was, it had its slimy appendages everywhere. Sure enough, vines began to wrap around the trees surrounding them.

Naruto let out a small whimper before schooling himself.

Discretely, Sasori formed chakra neko-tes around the fingers of his free hand. This might get messy. His body was tense as he prepared for battle against these mysterious vines.

"Walk back to camp," Sasori commanded. "Slowly." Hitoshi stepped on a crunchy leaf and the vines twitched. "I said slowly." Meathead. He forced his voice to remain calm. He suspected that these things reacted to noise and movement, and he wasn't going to become plant food if he could help it.

"Are... you th... ere?"

Sasori turned his head around slowly to face Hitoshi and Naruto. Then he brought his claw-tipped fingers close to his lips in a shushing motion. He would have mock-sliced his own neck to emphasize his point, but whatever these things were attached to, it was coming.

He knew... because the dim cloud of chakra heading toward them from just a few feet away was absolutely foul and suffocating.

"I... feel... you. Feels... good."

Hitoshi and Naruto were still slowly backing away from the vicinity, keeping their footfalls as silent as possible.

A creature emerged from the trees. It was humanoid in shape, with a hunched back a disproportionately large head. The thing was wearing what seemed to be remnants of a pair of army pants. Strangely enough, it lacked genitals. It's arms were more translucent—they were thick, purple, ropy vines for biceps, and those vines writhed on the ground. They were the same vines that were wrapped around the trees.

Naruto had to clap a hand over his mouth to keep himself from squealing in terror. It was the stuff of nightmares to him, who had always irrationally feared ghosts and monsters. Hitoshi wasn't faring much better, but to his credit, he put one meaty hand on Naruto's shoulder and proceeded to guide them both away, occasionally looking backward for anything that would produce noise if stepped on.

The monster—gods, it had only half of its head; it had a nose, a mouth, half an ear, but the top half of the head was gone—neared Sasori, its tongue hanging out slightly. Its breath was even fouler than its chakra, smelling like rot and death. Inwardly, Sasori gagged, but for the most part, he stayed still. A bead of sweat was dripping down his temple.

"I... can... smell you..." It turned its head, the bones in its neck cracking.

Sasori's eyes widened marginally. Shit. "RUN! IT KNOWS YOU'RE HERE!" They stared at him in bewilderment and fear. "DON'T JUST STAND THERE! RUN!" Faster than they could follow, Sasori cut himself free and proceeded to cut down the sharp vines that lunged at them.

"B-b-bwaagghh!" Screaming, Naruto ran for his life, and equally terrified Hitoshi at his heels.

"Hey, you artless fuck," Sasori swiped the vines going after them in half, "your opponent is me."

The monster's tongue lengthened until it was lying in a disgusting pile on the floor. "I hear... you..." It screeched, vines coming from all directions flying at Sasori. He swore, deflecting or cutting the sharp ends with his neko-tes. Two ripped through his shirt and nicked his side, causing blood to splatter and drip down his pants.

"Tch." Sasori dissipated his chakra neko-tes, forming chakra around wrists and hands so that it shaped a blade. "What the fuck are you even supposed to be?" He cut more vines before lunging at the creature, slashing down at its half of a head. "Some kind of," the scalpel sliced down its groin, effectively splitting it in half, "freak experiment?"

Both halves of its lower face were moving in an attempt to speak, but no words ever came out.

It's still not dead? Then again, considering the top half of its head was missing, ordinary things weren't going to put it down for good. He dissipated the chakra blade on one arm, then lifted the other over his head. Then, methodically, he began slicing and stabbing in places that would kill a normal human. The monster screeched and writhed in pain when the blade pierced its heart.

Sasori raised an eyebrow when some kind of juice began to gush out from every pore in its body, emitting a repugnant stench. The vines wrapped around the trees drooped and began to shrivel up, liquid leaking all over the forest floor.

Eventually, the chakra of the beast disappeared completely, and Sasori knew it was dead. He kicked one half of the body. "Hmph."

"What the heck happened here?!" Tenten and Lee burst from the trees, both carrying firewood. "We saw Naruto and Hitoshi-san run back to camp, and they were terrified!" She recoiled at the sight of the wrinkled, prune-like corpse.

"Sasori-sama, are you okay?" Lee asked, eyes a little rounder than usual. "Tenten said she could feel your chakra fluctuating."

"Aa." Sasori wiped plant juice—the monster had certainly been plant-like—off the sleeve of his shirt before rolling them up, exposing his forearms. "I'm fine, but we have to warn the others immediately." He shot the disgusting thing a wary glance. "We don't know how many more of these things are wandering around."


"Monster!" Uzumaki Naruto cried as he burst into the clearing, his face seemingly drained of blood. Everybody was on instant alert.

"Monster?" someone echoed.

Hitoshi nodded. "It was some weird... plant thing. Sasori bought us time to escape, but..."

"You just left him there?!" a woman gasped, outraged.

"Hey, lady!" Hitoshi snapped. "It was either him or me, and I chose the obvious route! So did the kid—why don't you go harp on his ass instead of mine?"

Naruto looked down, ashamed. Dammit! This asshole's right. I just ran like a coward! I should have stayed and fought. He cast a regretful look at the woods behind him.

The crowd murmured worriedly for their safety before Itachi finally took charge.

"Everyone, stay calm." The Itachi's voice was unwavering. "Kisame, Gai, and Kakashi, I want you all to gather everyone back into the truck for the time being. Deidara, Shisui, you and I will head out to search for them." He'd been leader last time, and while he was not the most charismatic person around, everyone deferred to him, even Kakashi and Gai, who acted as pseudo-leaders. Gai was too... youthful to lead efficiently, and Kakashi... well, people hadn't been around him enough to fully trust him.

But, of course, there were always those who defied authority, even an unofficial one.

"You expect to sit here on our asses and wait to be eaten?" Mitarashi Anko stared at him. "Because if I'm going down, I'm going down fighting."

"Maa, Anko," Kakashi piped up. "Itachi doesn't expect us to do that. That would be silly, hm?" He eye-smiled at Anko, who twitched in irritation. "Obviously, we have our own brains, which means we can make our own decisions when given broad, omitting orders like Itachi's. Isn't that right?"

Itachi gave him a short nod. "Anko-san, if you and anyone else who is able can protect those incapable of self-defense, that would be best."

"Hmph." Anko crossed her arms. "Fine, then."

"Can we go now?" Deidara demanded impatiently, stepping forward and giving Shisui an expectant stare. "Danna's strong, un, but if this 'monster' is as terrifying as Uzumaki made it sound..."

As if she had summoned him, Sasori emerged from the trees with Tenten and Lee in tow, the latter two holding firewood in their arms. They all looked a little disturbed, even Sasori.

"No need," the red-haired man said, and almost everybody sighed in relief. Him in one piece meant that whatever monster Hitoshi and Naruto had been describing was now dead or severely incapacitated. Most likely the former, considering his pragmatic personality.

"Well?" Chiyo strode up to her grandson, gazing at him. "What happened out there, brat?"

Sasori clicked his tongue. "This is something that everyone should hear, so pay attention." Tenten and Lee moved around him and set down their firewood near Sasuke's rock. He recounted to them his encounter with the beast, and his subsequent fight and elimination of the creature.

"They were right!" a brown-haired woman wailed, shivering by the end of the tale. "There really was a monster...!"

"Sasori-sama must be really strong to defeat it," said one man, nodding in appreciation of the red-haired man's supposed strength. A few people voiced their agreement.

Sasori completely ignored their praise, brows furrowed. "There is... one detail that I failed to mention."

He looks like he just had a nightmare, Deidara thought with a frown that matched her Danna's. What kind of detail does he mean...? Sasori was normally so unflappable that it irritated her. To see him so unsettled, like he had been the night before Itachi's battle with Madara, unsettled her in turn.

"Which is?" Itachi prompted.

"... It was wearing pants. Or, at least, what used to be pants," Sasori amended. "Which makes me suspect..." He trailed off, waiting for all of them to make the connection.

Horror passed through Kakashi's single visible eye as realization struck him. "You don't mean..."

"Could it possible?" Gai wondered, looking equally disturbed.

"It was human," Itachi stated.

"H-hey," a teenage girl said, fingering her greasy black hair nervously. "Are you sure? I mean, it could have just been a trick of the light. O-or, maybe it was a shape-shifting monster?!" She sounded hopeful.

Sasori had no qualms in crushing that hope right away. If she deluded herself like that, she would be killed. "Unlikely," he said in a tone that left no room for argument. "During my fight, it demonstrated zero shape-shifting ability other than the ability to turn its arms into vines."

"You mentioned that it only died when you stabbed it through the heart, yeah?" Deidara said. "Hypothetically, if there are more of these..." She was met with horrified gasps and pale faces. "Would they all be that easy to beat? After all, the one you fought did only have half of its head... It could have more abilities that you didn't see."

"Well," Shisui drawled. "While I'd want to disbelieve that, there's a high possibility of that being true. Things like that are unnatural. Which means..."

Rin, who was standing at the front of the crowd, holding both of her children's hands with either hand, spoke up gravely, "They were created by human beings."

"Meaning that we really can't discount the idea that there are more out there," Sasuke added, every head turning to him when he spoke. Most of them glared at him. He met their accusing stares evenly.

"Of course, otouto," Itachi agreed. "We should all be on guard from now on."

Sasuke looked away. "Hn..."

"We're losing daylight," Kakashi said, looking up at the sky and its waning light. "If we want to have our bellies fed, we should have a small group go hunting right now with at least one high-caliber fighter with them."


"Shogo, have you seen that little orphan girl?" A slightly tubby boy with a dirty face and equally dirty blond hair nudged Asagi's son. "The one over there."

"Eh?" Shogo turned his head to the left to see a brown-haired girl seemingly drift through the grass, holding three kunai. "What about her, huh, Itsuki?"

"She's uber weird. Okaa-chan says not to talk to her, because she carries those sharp-thingies around." Itsuki nodded at his own words, as if affirming them. "Does she even know how to use 'em? I don't think so."

"I guess..." Shogo stared after the girl, watching her disappear into the woods. "Um, should she be going there?" She looks pretty cool with those knives, though...

"Who cares?" said Itsuki. He shifted uncomfortably. "Okaa-chan said that the monsters aren't real, anyway, and the strong adults are just making it up to scare the weaker ones. She won't be fooled, though. Okaa-chan's real smart."

The boys' conversation drifted into the night.

Chihiro hadn't gone very far into the forest. Camp could still be seen from where she was standing, and she had chosen to stay in a small clearing with shorter grass that gave her a wide berth for movement. Taking in a deep breath, she threw her kunai at a nearby tree trunk, listening to them land with a satisfying thud. Quietly, she went over to retrieve them before repeating the whole process all over again.

"Don't hold them like that. You'll cut a finger off."

Chihiro jumped. "W-wha... Who's there?" She turned on her feet, but she couldn't find anyone.

"Up here, kid."

She glanced skyward to see a blue man lounging on a low branch like some kind of jungle cat. Oh. I've seen him before. He was kind of hard to miss. She remembered Itsuki's—was that his name?—mother steering her chubby son away from him when they first caught sight of him. They called him a monster, too. She'd been right next to them when the woman had told her son that. He certainly looked like a monster, after all, and not many people had the insight to see underneath the underneath. Even Chihiro. Kakashi had said it was mostly a samurai motto. He looks like a monster but... Curiously, she stepped closer to the tree, her neck still craned to stare him in the eye. He doesn't seem like one... He reminds me of Iruka-san. He used to give me extra congee, before I was kidnapped by that drunk man.

"I know that," Chihiro eventually said, and amusement lit up the shark-like man's gaze. "Kakashi-sensei taught me how. I'm just..." Her cheeks flushed. "Lazy?"

"Lazy?" Kisame scoffed, sitting up. "A Nara is lazy, kid. You're just unmotivated."

"Eh? What's the difference?" She looked up at him with wide eyes.

"Yours can be easily fixed, a Nara's is a life condition." Kisame grinned at her, baring all of his teeth. "You said the scarecrow taught you, right? But now that he's busy with making sure we all don't die, I bet you've probably been feeling pretty ignored..."

She wilted. "N-no, that's not it..."

"Isn't it?"

She didn't answer, staring at the grass at her feet.

Seeing her sorry appearance, Kisame softened. He slid off the branch, landing with a soft thump. "Tell you what, kid, why don't you show me what you can do? Then we can make some improvements to your skill set."

Gosh, her eyes were so wide. Maybe he should have never revealed himself. But when she had stopped underneath his tree and started throwing her kunai, his interest had been piqued. He should have been over his martial arts club and his old students by now, but...

"Um, what should I do first?" Chihiro asked hesitantly.

He shrugged. "Hey, if I knew what you could do, I wouldn't have asked for a demonstration."

"I know!" Chihiro blurted, her cheeks going pink. Promptly, she flung her kunai at the tree trunk, each landing beneath the other. "I can do this, I guess." She hurriedly grabbed her kunai again and, this time, she threw all three at once. This time, it landed all over the place. "Ah, oops... I can't really do much else. But I know a bit of hand to hand?"

Kisame rested his Samehada by the base of the tree. "Scarecrow style, sure... but have you ever heard of Hoshigaki style?"

"No..."

He barked a laugh. "Makes sense—we're all dead, except me, of course."

Chihiro recoiled, mortified. "I-I'm so sorry—"

"Don't sweat it. Now come at me—show me what you can do."

"Right... sensei!"

"Isn't that a bit soon?"

"Sorry, sensei!"

"Now you're just being a brat..."

Chihiro smiled up at him, feeling a little surer of herself. No, she thought, he might look funny, but he's not a monster. Itsuki's okaa-chan is wrong.


He swore that he was in awe every time he laid eyes upon him. Carefully, as if fearing that he would break if handled too roughly, Itachi touched his son's tiny fingers. Izuna. Izumi's large brown eyes opened to stare at him. She was holding Izuna to her chest, a small blanket wrapped around him. It was cold even at the base of the mountain, and it was still very much winter.

"Do you want to hold him?" Izumi asked, looking faintly amused. "Or are you comfortable wallowing in your own indecision and reluctance?"

"I..." Itachi's cheeks colored, and he swore it was from the cold and not his delighted wife. "Yes." He held out his arms, and Izumi gently passed the bundle to him.

Obito... Itachi poked Izuna's forehead softly, the baby continuing to snooze. Strangely enough, you always told me that you wanted a boy named Izuna for a third son. But Rin told you that two was enough, and to wait until Hikari-chan was a bit older. Even stranger, Izuna happened to be...

Madara's resigned expression was seared into his brain, courtesy of the Mangekyou Sharingan.

"I'm worried," Izumi confided after a few minutes of silence between them. Chatter still buzzed around them—all of them were seated on rocks and the occasional boulder around a large campfire and eating venison. Shikaku had taught them how to cook the game meat to perfection, claiming with a bit of sadness that Yoshino—his late wife—had cooked a venison meal for them every third day, and that she had passed on the recipes to him and cooking techniques to him. "He's so small, and out here..." She bowed her head.

He was worried, too, he admitted to her. But Izuna was his son, and if anyone or anything (like that monster Sasori so vividly described to them all) dared to harm the babe...

Itachi would hate to imagine what kind of fate they'd be suffering at his hands.

"Yo." Kakashi appeared behind them, squatting. "So... this is Izuna, huh?" He leaned in, blinking slowly at the sleeping child. "Cute," he said woodenly.

Izumi snorted. "Don't try to force yourself—we all know that young children aren't really your style."

"Kakashi-san, please refrain from imprinting on my child," Itachi requested, voice bland.

"Ouch, Itachi..." Kakashi propped his head on his hand. "No lie, though, he's cute. All babies are, I suppose." He lifted his eyes from Izuna, gazing at the half-moon hidden by the tonight's clouds. "I'm sure you already know this, but Obito wanted a son called Izuna. I was going to be the weird uncle and everything. Teach him my ways, and how to appreciate fine literature... I tried with Daichi-kun, but Rin scared me off as soon as she heard."

"No surprise there," Izumi said dryly. "And don't get any ideas in your head. If I see one of those orange books within a five feet radius of Izuna, I'm burning it."

Underneath his shirt-mask, Kakashi pouted. "Hmph. Obito was a lot more open-minded than you ladies..." He let out a small breath. "I bet he's up there in the moon, laughing at me." Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Rin popping a piece of venison in Hikari's gaping mouth. The little girl chewed happily. Beside her, Daichi ate slowly, savoring the taste. The boy even cracked a smile once in a while.

"You should go to her," Itachi said abruptly. "And no, this is not me trying to get rid of you, Kakashi-san. You're friends with her, aren't you? Stop ignoring her."

Kakashi lowered his eye. "Maa... when you actually talk, you talk too much, Itachi..." Regardless, he stood. "But thanks."

"He's feeling guilty, isn't he?" Izumi said when he was out of earshot, striking up a conversation with Rin. "Typical Kakashi... I wish he would stop thinking that everything bad that happens to people he loves is his fault. It's not."

Itachi nodded, silently chewing on his venison. Kakashi had many faults, but at the end of the day, he was a good man who didn't deserve to suffer as much as he had. They'd found out that Kakashi and Gai, with the help of inside agents Shisui and Kagami, had been sneaking people who wanted out outside the walls of Akatsuki. They'd been silent rebels, helping wherever and whenever they could. In fact, it was actually Shisui who had found Chihiro being assaulted by a drunken man, and the Uchiha had taken her to stay with Kakashi and Gai. Hyuuga Hinata, Itachi remembered, had been in a similar situation to Chihiro. She'd been taken in by Kakashi's (silent) rebel group early on in the occupation, which explained why Hanabi could never find her.

Speaking of Hanabi, the young Hyuuga was talking to her sister, looking much happier than she had been before. There was still this... looming emptiness in her eyes—from losing Ino, he guessed—but she was recovering. Hinata was doing wonders to her mental health, and vice versa.

Naruto plopped down next to Hinata, and the oldest Hyuuga immediately blushed, pointedly turning away from him. The Uzumaki was confused, and a little hurt, but merely shrugged and started to eat his share of food.

Izuna stirred in Itachi's arms, and he looked down at the baby, alarmed. What did he need? Was he hungry? Did he need to do a number two? A number one? When the baby simply fell back into sleep's embrace, Itachi breathed a sigh of relief, though he was slightly discouraged from his... uselessness at parenting.

"Hey, don't look like that," Izumi chided, pressing up next to him. "Anata, we're both new parents. I'm just as confused as you are, trust me. It's only thanks to Sakura, Shizune, and Rin that I've managed this far..." She smiled wearily. "And it's only been three days. We'll get through this without any explosions," nearby, Deidara perked up slightly, "so... don't worry too much. Because we're lucky enough to have people supporting us."

Well. She wasn't wrong. So Itachi relaxed, bringing the baby up closer to his chest. A smile graced his features.


"Sakura, are you coming?" Shizune called. Today, the group would officially be hiking through the mountain pass and walking the rest of the way to Konoha. Everything was packed, the fire was extinguished, and pretty much everyone was ready to go. It was only a few of the children that were still a bit groggy.

"Oh, um," Sakura flailed, "just a minute. I have... something to do."

She hurried into the forest, not realizing that Shikamaru and Choji were staring after her.

Not wanting to keep them waiting for too long, Sakura plucked a few white-lavender winter zinnias and placed them at the foot of a boulder. "Sorry... Ino." A few people glanced at her curiously, but they didn't say a word. They recognized that look on her face. It was one they all saw when peering into the river for a drink.

Sakura felt a presence behind her and turned, not surprised to see Shikamaru and Choji.

"Hey." Shikamaru wasn't talking to her, but to Ino. "You just had to get yourself killed, didn't you, you troublesome woman?" His voice was thick with grief, and he crouched down, patting the smooth surface of the stone. A few tears escaped his eyes, but he didn't bother wiping them away. "When I see you again, I just know you're going to nag me to make up for lost years. Which means I'm planning to live a long life to prolong my fate in the afterlife."

"Same here," murmured Choji. "You always tried to put me on a diet. I told you I really hated that, but you kept doing it, swapping my chips with healthy foods." His eyes drooped. "But if I really hated it, then why do I miss it? When we see each other again, I'll let you this time. Sakura got you flowers, and I'm sure there's a meaning behind them besides looking good, but I'm not smart enough to figure that out." Choji picked up a smooth stone. "No offence to Sakura, but I've always liked stones a lot better. They last. Endure. They're like... a constant presence, even when nature is constantly changing around it." He placed the stone beside the flowers.

After a few moments, Shikamaru put a stone next to Choji's, pinning the flower stems to the boulder, so that it wouldn't be blown away by the wind.

"Alright," Sakura said eventually. "We can go now. Sorry for the delay."

She was met with silence.

Then, Deidara walked over, picking up a stone. She set it next to Shikamaru's. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry, un. I've done your family the worst kind of disservice. I got both of you killed." She took a deep breath in. "Hitomi, Ino... I've made the worst kinds of decisions with you two."

Silently, Sasori moved to the boulder, placing his own stone next to Deidara's. The cut on his side was fully healed, though there was a bandage wrapped around it to prevent the skin from tearing. Then he stepped back.

It sparked a flurry of movement. Soon, the remaining sixty-odd people were scurrying about in the grassy clearing, looking for rocks. Even Sasuke was taking part in the impromptu search.

"Kisame-sensei, look!" Chihiro held up an oval pebble to the shark-like man. "Is this good?"

Kisame groaned, though there was no real ire in it. "Didn't I tell you that it was too soon? And yeah, sure, kid, it's good." He stared at the lump in his hands, which was just a little bit bulkier and misshapen than Chihiro's. "Better than mine, at any rate."

Sakura, Shikamaru, and Choji stepped back, shocked by their actions. Once they'd found adequate stones, they all lined up to place it at the boulder.

"Good luck, nee-san that I never knew," Shogo said innocently, clapping his hands together in a prayer after placing his stone down. "If you see my oji-san up there, please tell him that soba and okaa-chan are doing okay!"

"Um, here," Itsuki muttered when he put his stone down. "I didn't really know you, nee-san, but here..."

"Your life was too short," Rin said solemnly, when it was her turn. "And for that, I'm sorry."

"Thank you for being Naruto's friend." Kakashi.

"Rest in peace, young one. May youth be bestowed upon you in your next life, lotus." Gai.

"H-hey, Ino. Why did you have to go, huh?" Naruto cried when it was his turn. "Who's gonna eat ramen with me, now, huh?! Or scold me for not eating enough vegetables?"

"Ino-nee-san, I really liked your visits to the factory," Moegi confessed. "And I really wanted to be like you. You were strong and confident. Thank you for being an inspiration to me."

"I'm sorry I couldn't save you. You'd been through so much. You... you should be here, with us. We could have trained more, and—and..." Hanabi sniffled, unable to finish.

"Thank you being my sister's friend," Hinata said softly, placing a stone at the makeshift shrine. "Rest in peace... Ino-san."

"I-I... I didn't know you. I had a crush on Hitomi, but I didn't really know you... or her, really." Daichi. "But you didn't deserve to die. Neither did she. I... it's not fair."

Hikari bowed at her grave. "Rest in peace, onee-san."

When a woman called Masami put her stone down and backed away, there was only one person left.

Uchiha Sasuke ignored all the pointed stares he was getting, crouch down and placing a particularly smooth stone in the front-center. It was one he had grind with his katana in a fit of boredom last night. You were a fangirl of mine and my brother's, weren't you? Normally, that would mean that I don't like you, but... how could I, when I never knew you in the first place? Maybe if I hadn't been such a coward, you'd still be alive.

"That's a pretty one, mister," Shogo piped, staring at the stone he had put down. "It's the prettiest one, I think."

Sasuke shot him a side glance. "Hn..."

The sun was just rising over the horizon when the group headed off.

In the breeze, the Ino's winter zinnias fluttered lazily, and contentedly.


There was a little makeshift shrine in front of the empty Yamanaka compound. It was small enough to go unnoticed by the soldiers, and a fragile little thing that had been knocked over by the wind many times over.

Uchiha Fugaku crouched in front of it. "Inoichi. My sons made a grand escape from his hellhole a few nights ago." He closed his eyes. "Your daughters... I know they're with you now. You're finally together again. I wonder..." He opened his eyes. "How long do I have to wait until I see my sons again?"


"Sasuke." Itachi placed a hand on Sasuke's shoulder, startling him.

"What...?"

"Thank you."

"For what?"

Itachi walked ahead before turning slightly. "For saving my life, even if no one acknowledges it."

Sasuke stared after him before his lips twisted into a sad smirk. After all that I've done... you would still forgive me, wouldn't you, even when everyone else condemns me? You... really are too kind.

 

Chapter Text

Lee was practically vibrating with anticipation as he stared at the muscles rippling on Maito Gai's back as the latter walked, said muscles clearly visible beneath his green spandex suit. Lee himself was wearing a plain white, short-sleeved kimono-shirt with a martial arts belt and dark pants—oh, how he probably wished he could emulate his revered Gai-sama by wearing the exact same clothes.

Or, at least, that was what Tenten supposed. And considering Lee was an open book and then some, she was pretty sure that she was right. Lee's eyes moved upward to the back of Gai's bowl cut, and Tenten could have sworn that his round eyes shone brighter than ever. It made her smile—it was nice to see her friend in such a good mood again.

"Like what you see?" she whispered to him, teasing.

"It's... so youthful!" Lee gasped, drawing some looks from nearby civilians. Frantically, he grabbed the messy, straw-like braid he kept his hair in, frowning. "Tenten, when we stop for the night, could you please give me a haircut just like Gai-sama's?"

She groaned, even though she was more than happy to give him that haircut. "Are you sure you really want to look like... that?"

Lee nodded vigorously. "Yes! It is my greatest wish at the moment, Tenten!"

He thanked her profusely before vowing to himself that he would get Gai to notice him. It was then Tenten inquired, "Why don't you just talk to him? We've been so close to him this whole time and you haven't even spoken to him once."

Lee's face drooped slightly. "Well… what if Gai-sama doesn't think I'm worthy enough?"

"Lee!" Tenten admonished. "You can't expect him to notice you if you just ignore him. And who says you aren't worthy enough? That's for Gai-san to judge, not you. And, personally, I think you're plenty worthy."

Tears sparkled in Lee's eyes. "T-Tenten…! Thank you! You are a true friend!"

At the front of the group, Shikaku and Itachi walked side by the side, the former holding the map. He had marked it last night, after dinner had passed. The Nara had travelled through this mountain before, and was able to name some old bunkers that been in use in a previous war. If they were lucky, there would be rations there, even if they were expired.

"We're here," Shikaku was telling Itachi, motioning to a place on the map. "At the rate we're going, we'll be able to make it to the bunker a few hours before sunset."

That was good news, and those who were close enough to hear the exchange murmured their approval.

Kakashi tilted his head skyward. "It looks like it's going to rain soon. It's no good travelling in that kind of weather. We should pick up the pace."

"Agreed," Hitoshi the civilian said, scowling up at the looming clouds. "Frankly, I don't want to be soaked to the bone and have this fucking wind blowing up my ass at the same time."

Someone snorted at that, and Shimizu Asagi shot him a dirty look, her son having been in earshot.

Chihiro was practically glued to Kisame's side. It seemed that the small kindness that he had showed her by taking interest in her training had earned him her loyalty. She was a little shy and withdrawn, Kisame knew, and never talked with the other children. It was shame, actually, that she was nine years old and therefore didn't fit in with any of the general age groups. Shogo, Itsuki, and Hikari were too young, all of them five or six; Moegi, Konohamaru, and Udon were twelve and too old, while Daichi, at eight years old, was still grieving over the death of his father and almost never left his mother's or sister's side. And, of course, Izuna was not even a week old yet.

As they traveled, Deidara tried to make herself familiar with most of their faces. She knew some of them from before the war, but the majority were almost an entirely new species to her. She wasn't sure how she hadn't heard of Mitarashi Anko before, considering how brash, rude, and loud the purple-haired woman was. Perhaps the woman had been living on the other side of the city. Kotetsu and Izumo, a pair of best friends who were always seen with one another, were also unfamiliar, but they had distinguishable features.

A strange huffing noise broke her out of her thoughts, and she narrowed her eyes at the woman wheezing in front of her. Her black hair fell limply over her face, and her back was slouched.

Steeling herself, Deidara sidled up to her and tentatively wrapped an arm around her shoulders, helping her forward this particularly steep slope.

"Is that you, dear?" the woman murmured. "My beautiful daughter... Ami..."

Deidara nearly choked. She... what the hell do I say?

"Ami, you don't need help mama... you're so young. Go have fun with your boyfriend instead... I'll still be here when you come back." Suddenly, the woman collapsed in a dead faint, Deidara sweating bullets as she carefully lowered her to the grass.

Sasori was there almost instantly. "What happened, brat?"

"I-I don't know, she just fainted, un. She thought..." Deidara lowered her eyes, puffing out a small sigh. "She thought that I was her daughter. Before she fainted, that is."

Sasori clicked his tongue, placing the back of his hand on the woman's sweating forehead. "Fever. She's delirious. This wind's not doing us any good either. You," Sasori turned his head to a random civilian, "go get get Sakura or Shizune."

"Y-yes, Sasori-sama..."

The entire group was forced to stop for her as Shizune knelt over her, and there were a few people that didn't appreciate having their journey stopped. Mitarashi Anko looked disgruntled, but she wasn't so heartless as to simply suggest abandoning the woman.

"Why can't we just leave her?" Hitoshi inquired loudly. "She's just dead weight anyway."

"Why, you...!" Naruto had never quite taken to Hitoshi, and the latter's cruel words were just wicked enough to rouse Naruto's ire. "You take that back! I'm sure she's a lot more helpful than you are, dattebayo!"

"Shut up, both of you," Sasori said bluntly, and then obliged, albeit reluctantly. They hadn't forgotten who had saved their asses from the vine monster yesterday.

"She'll need to be carried and kept warm," Shizune said after a few moments, standing back up. "Is anyone up to the task?" Her onyx eyes glinted as she shifted her gaze to the surly Hitoshi. "What about you, Hitoshi-san? You're as big as an ox. I'm sure a tiny woman like her won't give you any trouble."

Despite herself, Deidara couldn't help but grin at Shizune's sharp words. "Of course," she chimed, keeping her voice demure, "Hitoshi-san looks very strong—I'm sure he could show some of the men here a thing or two, un. I mean, unless..." Deidara shrugged, smirking. "All those muscles are just for show."

Even Sasori looked faintly amused. He was no fonder of Hitoshi than Deidara and Naruto.

Flushing, Hitoshi glared at all of them before grudgingly stomping over to the unconscious woman (Sakura had wrapped a spare blanket around her and was currently trying to bring down her fever using medical chakra; she stepped back when he got closer) and picked her up in an awkward bridal style. "What?" Hitoshi barked when he caught a few people ogling at him. "What're you looking at, you assholes?" They quickly turned away.

As the journey continued, Chihiro's brow furrowed in a worried frown. "Ne, Kisame-sensei, what's wrong with her? Why did she think that Deidara-san was her daughter?"

Kisame deliberated on the question. "That woman was in the Underground; I remember seeing her a couple of times. According to what I've heard, her daughter was raped and killed by enemy soldiers right in front of her eyes, the day right before she was due to get married..."

Chihiro became stricken. "T-that's horrible... Why would they do that?" Tears welled up in her eyes, blurring her vision, but she kept them back. "Why do such bad people exist?"

They were talking loud enough for a few surrounding people to hear—including Deidara and Daichi, who she was walking with.

"You ask the most difficult questions, don't you?" Kisame mused. "It's a terrible thing to consider, Chi-chan, but have you ever considered that they might view us as the bad guys?"

Her frown deepened as she thought about it. "But... we're not. Aren't we the good guys? We're not bad guys."

"Aa, I know. A cute kid like you could never be a bad guy." Kisame chuckled. "But those men were conditioned to fight for their cause, and to destroy the enemy because they stand in their way. In their eyes, we are the bad guys, and they're the so-called good guys. It's one of those realities of wars—it isn't good versus evil like you've probably been led to believe. At the end of the day, they're just people like you and me, fighting for a cause they believe in."

Chihiro was silent.

"What nonsense!" Itsuki's mother sneered. "Don't listen to anything that monster says, Itsuki-kun." Before anyone could reprimand her, she moved to the front of the travel pack, taking her son with her.

"Bitch," Deidara said loudly, relishing at the sight of the woman's back stiffening in anger, having not fled fast enough to avoid hearing the insult.

Chihiro knew that it was a bad word, but she couldn't help but add, "Yeah! Kisame's not a monster!"

Itsuki's mother's face soured even further as she turned around. "Maybe not to you two. But aren't you both equally as bad—one is almost too old to not be married, and the other is a dirty orphan." She turned her nose up at them, Deidara's cheeks coloring with rage, and Chihiro's face growing white; a muscle in Kisame's jaw twitched. "My poor Itsuki has to put up with people like you—"

"Hey, woman." A cold voice interrupted her tirade. Sasori stared at her with flinty eyes. "Do you want to be attacked and possibly eaten?"

She startled. "W-well, no, Sasori-sama, I would think not—"

"Then stop bitching and start hauling ass."

Nearby, Chiyo snorted, pleased. At least her grandson was doing well in securing a wife.

Successfully cowed, the witch hurried off, still dragging her son behind her. Anyone who had witnessed the exchange immediately pitied the tubby little boy.

Sasori glanced expectantly at Deidara, who huffed angrily and turned away. "I didn't need you to interfere."

"Please, brat," their shoulders brushed as he moved past her, "her guts would have been splattered all over the place if I hadn't interfered. And that would be detrimental to our progress."

She gave him a withering look. "Ever the pragmatic one, un..." Deidara noticed Kisame and Chihiro coming up behind her. "Don't listen to her, yeah, not when the only thing she seems to talk about other than you is her dead husband."

Kisame snorted wryly. "I don't need a pep talk from you, blondie. But thanks for the thought." He looked down at Chihiro, who was still silent. "Hey, kid, don't pout."

"... She called you a monster. Doesn't that make you sad?" Chihiro finally looked up from the ground, blinking at him.

"People have been calling me that my whole life. I'm used to it." Kisame's gaze softened ever so slightly. "So save your sympathy for someone else, okay? Someone else who's had it harder than me."

"She's going to self destruct," Deidara stated, drawing their attention. "People like her always do." And she could name a few more who were walking a similar path to Itsuki's mother. Funnily enough, it was the Uchiha that she had thought of who finally snapped.

Sasuke had had enough of Itsuki's mother running her mouth about her dead husband. "Can you shut the hell up?"

Gasping, the woman covered Itsuki's ears. "How dare you speak to me that way, you traitor!"

"Dumbass," Sasuke sneered, completely ignoring her words, "this is life. Your husband is dead, so get over it. No one wants to hear about him."

That shut her up for the rest of the trip, even when her friend, Masami, patted her back and whispered sweet, soothing words.

The journey continued. It was two hours to sunset when they finally found the bunker. Most of them cried in joyous relief, while others instantly entered the bunker without even considering what might lie inside. Fortunately, it was empty, safe, and had a supply of canned foods that were still edible (despite being past their time). There were even beds (which were unmade; they tried not to dwell on the fact that the previous occupants had likely not returned from the battlefield alive), but not enough for all of them. It was decided that the extremely tired, pregnant, nursing, or elderly would have the beds, while the rest of them slept on the floor, huddling close with their limited supply of blankets to keep each other warm.

It was too late to go hunting for fresh meat now, so they all settled for a cold, wet meal of luncheon meat, nuts, and other processed canned or dry foods. As they ate, it started to rain outside. It disturbed Izuna from his sleep, and he began to wail, forcing Izumi to take him over to the beds, Rin by her side.

Sometime during dinner, the topic of self-defense came up.

"Not all of us are able to use our fists," a girl no more than fourteen pointed out. Oddly enough, the back of her hair stood up on end like Sasuke's, though his was much flatter's. Her name was Yukari, and she had a twin called Sawako. "Do you have any weapons that we might be able to use?"

There were some murmurs of agreement (Tenten was especially vehement), a few more reluctant than others, and it was Kakashi who answered.

"We do, actually," he said, eye-smiling. Almost faster than they could blink, he had a storage scroll stretched out in front of him. With a small puff of smoke, a neat pile of weapons appeared. "Don't touch," he warned when Shogo reached for a kunai handle sticking out of the pile. Asagi pulled her son backward, and he landed lightly on the bump on her belly. "It's not much—"

"There's, like, eight," someone deadpanned.

"—but I'm sure we can put them to good use." Kakashi picked up a tanto. "Anyone good with these? Besides Shisui, because he's a wiseass who already has two."

Shisui snorted in amusement.

"Is that a bow and arrow?" Deidara pointed at something in the weapon stack. "I haven't seen one of those in a while, un."

"You don't really need it," Sasori pointed out, and the blonde shrugged.

"Let Sawako-san have it." All heads turned to Sasuke. Some glared at him. He glared right back. "She's been staring at it ever since it poofed into existence."

"Sawako-san?" Itachi prompted, breaking the ice that had suddenly gathered in the atmosphere.

"Well," Sawako started, hesitating.

"Why should she get it?" a middle-aged man demanded. "Why should we listen to this traitor?"

"You might all label him a traitor, but he is correct." Surprisingly, it was Sasori who vouched for Sasuke, his eyes never leaving the middle-aged man's face.

Yukari joined in, saying fiercely, "My sister is a great shot! In my very humble opinion, she may be the greatest markswoman of our time! So there."

"Calm down," Anko drawled, "No one said that she wasn't."

Tenten suddenly reached forward and grabbed the iron bamboo staff she had been eyeing. When everybody stared at her boldness, she lifted her chin defiantly. "What? Don't you know this is Grade-A Ferrocalamus?"

No one pretended to know what that was.

"Iron bamboo," she amended, looking disgruntled at the fact that these people didn't have any appreciation for good weapons.

Deidara lazily lifted her hand. "I can vouch for her. She's an absolute badass with that thing. You won't believe the amount of ass she'll be able to kick with that, un."

A sly smirk made its way onto Sasori's face. "If I recall, she also kicked your ass."

"Hrr, Danna!"

The rain poured even harder above the bunker as the weapons were sorted out. Tenten got to keep her iron bamboo staff ("You're saying it wrong, Naruto! It's Ferrocalamus, not—ugh, whatever, you're not even listening."), Sawako was given the bow and arrows after constant reassurances from her sister that no one had the energy to oppose, and the tanto was claimed by Kagami, who, in their own words, wanted to match Shisui. The rest of the weapons, all blades of some sort (most of them were kunai), were distributed evenly to those who wished for one. Naruto was very pleased with the three-pronged kunai he received; it was the only one of its kind.

Sasuke remained content with his katana, refusing the chokuto he had been offered.

Anko took the chokuto instead. The blade was named Kusanagi, apparently, and had been recovered from Obito's truck by Shisui and Kagami prior to them driving it outside the city.

When the weapons pile was diminished to two unwanted kunai, Kisame noticed something odd about the storage scroll stretched beneath the blades. Those symbols... "Kakashi-san, were you the one who sealed the wall?"

A shocked silence fell over them.

"It was indeed my Eternal Rival!" Gai answered with his usual enthusiasm, teeth flashing as he smiled. Not even the steady beat of the rain could dampen his youthful spirit, it seemed. "Combining ancient samurai techniques with his hip and modern mindset, my Eternal Rival Kakashi was able to create a seal that would have even the most brilliant Naras scratching their heads!"

There was a pause.

"Well," Shikamaru said, "he's not wrong." Nearly three months was a long time for a Nara to figure something out, testament to Kakashi's sealing expertise.

"Mou, you're making me blush," Kakashi said lightly.

"Why didn't you tell us?" Sakura demanded.

He eye-smiled irritatingly. "I was never asked, Sakura-chan."

Sakura held up her fist threateningly. "Hrr, Kakashi—"

"It makes sense."

Sasori's voice was so quiet that, had the rain been any louder, he surely wouldn't have been heard. He fixed his brown gaze on the side of Kakashi's head. If the silver-haired man noticed, he didn't say anything. "Your father was the White Fang, was he not?" There was a thinly veiled disdain in the question.

Kakashi didn't look at him. "He was, Sasori-san. I'm not surprised that you made the connection, considering your history..."

The puppeteer's eyes narrowed, something that Deidara didn't miss. She noticed that he had his hands fisted around the cloth of his Akatsuki cloak as well. "Kakashi-san." Sasori's voice was deceptively calm. There was a blur and a whine, and a kunai whizzed past the Hatake's ear and embedded itself into a non-metal patch of the wall. "There is no one else who knows my history better than I."

"And do you regret it—"

"Will you shut up?" Deidara snapped irritably. "You two are killing the mood here, un. I don't know what happened, but sort it out in private. You're making everyone uncomfortable."

Sasori and Kakashi held each others' gazes evenly before the former turned away. Discretely, Deidara kept her eye on him. Sasori was always taciturn, but usually he attempted to make some sort of conversation with her when they were together. Silence seemed to drag out—not just between them, but for all of them.

When it was time to sleep, the women and men (save for the few couples) naturally separated. Women and children slept closest to the bed, while the men kind of just shifted to the wall. One by one, they drifted off to dreamland, lulled to sleep by the steady rain.

Deidara found herself sleeping between Rin and and Izumi. Both of her friends were already asleep. Hikari was snoring lightly in Rin's arms, her brother flopped awkwardly over the two of them. He must have been very tired not to wake up from Hikari's elbow jabbing his ribs. Before she knew it, her eyes were drooping shut as well.

Sasori couldn't sleep. He wasn't an insomniac by any means, but he was used to late nights. He was standing far away from where the men stepped, closer to the woman's side than anything else. He contemplated pulling out his puppets from their storage scroll for some tweaking. But, being who he was, he doubted that there were going to be any flaws to fix. His eyes wandered around the dark room before finally landing on Kakashi's form. There was a lamp near where he was slumped (against Gai of all people), and Sasori could make out his sharp features beneath his mask.

Hatake Kakashi, huh? Sasori turned away. I hope for both of our sakes, you are nothing like your father. A breeze from the entrance of the bunker swept down the halls and into the room. His skin crawled in response.

There was so much blood and the White Fang stood over him, him, the cocky smirk wiped off his face as he considered how many he had fell for the last time, oh, but then his parents were there and even more unnecessary, innocent blood was spilled all over his front

The wind died down. Sasori slumped against the wall, sliding down as he pinched the bridge of his nose. He'd been travelling for so long—he needed to sleep, or he would be dead on his feet tomorrow. Mentally, he made sure that they had gotten everything from the bunker already. The supply closets had been cleaned out, but there were drawers that still had't...

Sasori stood, taking his leave quietly.

Absently, he searched the bunker until he came across those drawers. He opened them, discovering fresh scrolls inside. He fingered the material, lips pursing when he realized that they weren't chakra conductive. Essentially useless, then.

He closed the drawers and returned to the bedroom with the scrolls.

Everyone's chakra levels were stable, which meant Sasori was free to do whatever he wanted with the paper—they wouldn't be stopping him anytime soon. So he took out an ink pot and a calligraphy brush from a storage scroll.

Then he began to write. It was meaningless words, really. It was like Deidara's art—utterly meaningless. His hand stilled, creating a blotch on the paper. Well, maybe her art wasn't the worst—the nonsense he was writing down right now definitely took the cake.

Nevertheless, he continued, eyes at half-mast. He wrote:

To be helpless is to suffocate in doubt

As child would in the untamed sea

Limbs sorebeaten by black waves

He cannot cry for help; the tears and noise are washed away

He can only swim further down in ease of pain

.

In unforgiving waters, child is alone

To bear the burdens of his exhaustion

And to throw them away in sight of surrender

In rolling, sweeping swells he slowly drowns

Passing on without a sound

"Why are you even up?" Sasori turned his head to see Kisame looming over him, eyes gleaming in the dark. The shark-like man held a canteen of water in his hands, and Sasori suspected that his lips were probably wet.

"Couldn't sleep." Sasori rolled up the remaining paper scrolls. Over his shoulder, Kisame read the poem at lightning speed.

"Huh." Kisame took a swig of water. "Depressing, but I see the point."

Point? It was just rambling. Sasori hadn't put thought into the words at all—he'd simply put down whatever felt or sounded right.

"It's those moments, you know?" Kisame said wistfully, closing his water canteen. "When you feel that you're in so deep, it feels easier to just swim down and drown, no? I have a feeling that you're familiar with what I'm saying. Well, goodnight. Not that it's going to do me much good, but I need my beauty sleep."

First, he was burning. Now, he was drowning. Sasori looked over his neat, pretty words. The urge to tear it apart was devilishly tempting, but he resisted. Instead, like the other, blank scrolls, he rolled it up. Then he placed all of them in one mass storage scroll, one he had uniquely designed, and one that also happened to carry pretty much everything, including other storage scrolls.

Fire and water. Sasori made his way to the edge of the men's sleeping group. How... awfully poetic.


Guards. They'd posted guards outside the bunker to keep watch for any enemy soldiers, dangerous animals, or...

Monsters. Not the Kisame kind, but the... plant kind, if Sasori's description was apt.

Izumo felt goosebumps crawl across his skin as a particularly strong wind blew against him. The rain had stopped a little while ago.

It would be dawn in perhaps and hour or two, and Izumo couldn't wait to return to bed for an extra hour of sleep. He was sure Kotetsu felt the same way. The relieving watchdogs (Izumo had to face it—that was all they were right now) were to be Iruka and Kakashi.

Kotetsu narrowed his eyes when several black lumps appeared at the edge of the trees. "Hey, hey, Izumo. Do you see that?" He nudged his best friend, who seemed on the verge of falling asleep. "Man, wake up!"

Izumo startled. "Wha? Oh, sorry, I must have just dozed off on my feet a little..."

Kotetsu pressed a finger to his lips, hissing, "Shh!" He had started to break into a cold sweat, and, with one trembling finger, he pointed at the black shapes that seemed to be emerging from the tree line.

There were white, glowing orbs in the midst of the darkness, unblinking. They were unmistakably eyes.

"Wolves?" Izumo sounded hopeful.

Ths shapes moved forward, a foul chakra filling the air.

Kotetsu swore. "Shit!" He ran back into the bunker, stepping on a pile of hair. "We're under attack! I think it's those monsters that Sasori ran into!"

The fighters in the group were immediately up, sleep seeping out of their eyes as they prepared for battle.

The civilians woke more slowly, rubbing their eyes, yawning, and muttering questioningly about the disturbance.

"I left Izumo back there!" Kotetsu cried, hysterical. "We have to hurry!"

It was a rush outside. Kakashi and Gai led the way, Kotetsu running after them. They were joined by people with weapons or fighting expertise.

Under the cover of the night, they charged.


They were damn ugly, that was for sure. Samehada, now unbandaged, shredded and tore at retractable monster limbs, but no chakra was ever absorbed by the sword. It was almost as if it were rejecting the chakra—Kisame had never once met anyone or anything whose chakra was so foul that even Samehada, born from less than savoury origins, refused to consume it.

With a war cry, Kisame sliced a monster's head off. It was different from Sasori's description. Were the monsters not all exactly the same? While it was certainly humanoid, this one had poison tipped spikes sticking out of its spine. At least he was right about one thing, though—even in its decapitated state, the monster was still thrashing on the ground. Without wasting anymore time, Kisame ripped its heart out with Samehada, shredding into black little bits of flesh. He leaped backward when a sort of greenish black juice began to gush out from the body, causing it to shrivel up.

Kisame took a second to observe his surroundings before stabbing Samehada through the chest of a monster, destroying its heart. He noticed that the chest of the beast was harder than any other part of its body. But not hard enough for Samehada.

Suddenly, blood splattered all over his front, and his eyes shot downwards. Less than three feet away, a civilian man who'd been fighting with a blade had just been murdered violently. His mangled remains hung in the monster's mouth before dropping to the grass.

Kisame readied Samehada.

On the other side of the battlefield, Anko was wielding Kusanagi as if it were a second limb. Her eyes widened when she saw a monster grabbing for a man that she knew—his name was Taro. "Taro, look out!"

The monster's elongated claws swiped across his chest, leaving bloody scratch marks. Taro had recoiled backward just in time. With a shout, he plunged his blade into the beast's heart, and it immediately began to die, splashing its revolting juices everywhere.

"You okay?" Anko demanded.

Taro nodded, grimacing in pain. "I'll live."

"You haven't fought for years," she reminded him. "Go see Sakura after we're done here."

He was agreeable, and they continued to fight their way through the monsters. They weren't easy to kill, but it wasn't tremendously hard. The most dangerous thing was their speed—it took a lot of energy to keep up with them.

Blood sprayed across the grass.

Sasori wondered if these abominations were evolving, or if the one that he had fought yesterday was just weak. He certainly hoped that it was the latter, even when his puppet, Karasu, sliced a monster with a mushroom growing out of its forehead into ribbons. Its heart was definitely not spared in that devastating attack.

There are so many of them. Sasori flicked his wrist, sending Karasu flying in another direction to aid a woman that had just bitten on the shoulder by a monster. And not enough of them. But they were strong. They would persevere, just like the philosophy behind his art.

A "Katsu!" drew his attention. Deidara, surrounded by three monsters, threw the explosive at her feet before jumping through a gap in the formation, allowing the clay creature to explode. It charred the monsters, causing them to shriek in pain and rage, and Deidara was able to thrust a kunai into one's heart.

Another swiped at her, and she ducked the blow just in time. Sasori joined her, using Karasu to cut down another assailant.

Once Deidara had killed the last one (plant juice sprayed all over her front but she didn't even flinch once; even so, Sasori could see the disturbed look in her eyes), Sasori spoke urgently to her, "Have my back. There's too many—I need to unseal another puppet."

As he hastily unrolled a storage scroll, Deidara killed another monster that got too close. She could smell its rotten breath as it slumped forward. She shoved it away before it could start leaking all over the place.

Kuroari appeared then, relieving Deidara of her duties. When somebody screamed, she glanced at Sasori expectantly.

"Go," he urged her, and she nodded, jumping away to help.


"Okaa-chan," Itsuki whined, sweating bullets as he squatted with his mother in the cramped bunker. Strange. It hadn't seen so cramped before. Fear had filled the empty spaces. "I'm scared..."

"Don't worried," his mother cooed. "Big, strong Takeda-san over there will protect us."

Takeda was a man in his late twenties holding a tanto, one that Shisui had randomly tossed him before rushing out to battle with Kagami by his side. He obviously had no idea how to use the weapon, if the way he was holding it was any indication.

Chihiro was on the verge of tearing the tanto out of his hand and using it herself to protect whatever might get in.

Almost seventy people held their breaths in a silence that made their insides twist in painful anticipation. Besides Itsuki's disturbance, nobody else spoke.

A crash sounded and all their hearts dropped at once.

One woman panicked. "RUN!"

It was pandemonium. Chihiro was nearly trampled as the people scattered, heading to different rooms in the bunker that they thought was safer. The bedroom was closest to the entrance, after all.

Takeda had abandoned them, too, the damn coward, even leaving Shisui's tanto behind. Chihiro picked it up. There were so few people left now—just her, a pale-faced Daichi, a wide-eyed Hikari, their mother, and the newest mother and her baby in the group: Izumi and Izumi.

Sweat accumulated on her hand, and Chihiro nearly dropped the weapon.

"Pass it here." Izumi's voice left no room for argument, and Chihiro almost had a hard time following what happened next. Izumi took the tanto from her and gave Izuna to Rin. The baby was thankfully still sleeping soundly.

Chihiro backed into the corner with Daichi and Hikari. She'd never been formerly introduced to either of her previous boss' students, though she had seen them walking around the cotton factory sometimes. They normally helped their mother at the dango shop.

There was another rush of footsteps and they saw the group that had just fled the room fly toward the entrance of the bunker, delirious with fear.

Outside, Anko swore loudly when a group of civilians charged onto the field, their brains obviously addled in their terror. They ran right toward a group of monsters that the fighters were trying to fend off, and, suddenly, Anko could see nothing as blood rained down upon the earth.

In the chaos, a monster wandered into the bunker unnoticed.

In the bedroom, Izumi tensed as the door was pushed open. A monster with black, soulless eyes stood in the entrance, saliva hanging from its curled lips.

Then, to everyone's horror, it smiled. "What pretty specimen. I shall enjoy feeding on your remains. Perhaps, I'll even let you become one of us."

Sweat beaded on Rin's forehead. 'One of us'?! What does that mean? It sounded so ominous that Rin didn't even want to dwell on the possibilities. She pulled Hikari and Daichi closer to her with her free arm, not complaining when Chihiro also pressed against her side in search of warmth and protection.

"Intelligent, huh?" Izumi lifted her tanto, eyes hard even though her entire form was trembling. She reeked of fear. "I don't care how smart you are, you monster. Unless you want me to run this through you, you better get the hell out of here."

It didn't budge. Izumi continued to stare it down, even when it was clear that she'd rather be looking at anything else. This... thing was truly the stuff of nightmares. Such things should not have even existed, but they did anyway.

The monster lashed out and Izumi barely blocked it with her tanto. For the first time in a very long time, she cursed not having a Sharingan to rely on. It just made things so much harder for her. She yelled over her shoulder to Rin, "RUN! TAKE IZUNA AND RUN!"

Rin was torn. Eventually, she nodded, rushing for the door as the monster's claws clanged against Izumi's weapon.

Tears pricked the Uchiha's eyes. Would this really be the last time she saw her child? It was a looming possibility, and one that she had not even considered before. And what about Itachi?

Rin stopped in her tracks, pupils dilating in horror as a clawed hand reached around the doorway, and another monster entered. She scurried backward with the children, up against the wall once more.

Izumi cursed herself for her weakness. "Just die!" She tried to slam the sword into its heart, but the monster easily sidestepped.

Suddenly, Rin screamed.

Izumi rushed to her, but was knocked to the ground by the monster, the tanto spinning away to the other side of the room, where it was unreachable. Her head slammed against concrete, agony bursting in the back of her skull. It was over. They were all going to die, and there was nothing she could do about it—

She squeezed her eyes shut.

Something wet and warm splattered on her face, and she knew that it had to be her blood. But why wasn't it hurting?

Slowly, she cracked her eyes open.

The monster that had just been about to kill her had been reduced to a bloodless corpse on the ground. Sasuke, katana drawn and covered in plant juice, stared down at the body with a cold vengeance.

Izumi blinked incredulously. Was this really the same boy who she had given tomatoes to? She would have shaken her head if she wasn't feeling so dizzy. Now wasn't the time to dwell on such things. There was still the monster attacking Rin and the children, and—

It was dead, too. Sasuke had taken care of it before killing the one that had been standing over Izumi.

"Why?" Izumi finally uttered.

Sasuke blinked, and Izumi could have sworn he looked surprised. "You're my family. All of you."

Izumi stood up shakily. "Thank you," she managed to choke out before rushing over to Rin.

They couldn't stay in the bedroom any longer. At this rate, it was probably safer outside than inside.

Sasuke seemed to agree, leading them to a bloody battlefield. The fight between martial artists and monsters was nearly over. There was only one monster left. Kakashi killed it before they couldn't even call it out.

Miraculously, most of them hasn't even gotten injured. The only injured warriors were Taro and a woman who wore her hair in a ponytail.

Tiredly, a head count was done.

There were forty-nine of them.

Out of sixty-something odd people, only forty-nine had survived.

Nobody could even cry. The numbers were... staggering.

Somebody threw up all over the bloody field.

And then Taro and the woman both collapsed.

Shizune and Sakura were instantly by their sides, breaking out of their shocked stupor.

"This..." Deidara trailed off. This was

"A massacre," Shisui finished.

It was over, however, for now. They would never rest easy again, but for now—

Taro jumped upward and lunged at Sakura's neck, maw opened unnaturally wide and teeth sharpened to points.

The medic didn't even get to flinch when Itachi was there, slicing Taro's head off. The head toppled to the ground, still snapping its mouth.

"Wh-what," Naruto stammered, shaking. "WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!"

"That's what I'd like to know!" Anko shouted as well, distress pitching her voice. She had known Taro.

When Itachi stabbed what was once Taro in the heart, it answered all of their questions.

"My god," Gai said, stunned to point where he wasn't even talking at top volume. "He's been..."

"Turned," Sasori concluded, his tone grim.

Deidara whipped her head over to where Shizune was standing over the woman. "Does that mean—"

The woman let out a low moan as her skin started to change, flecking away.

A blanket of stifling silence fell over them.

Then, his steps heavy with remorse, Kakashi stepped forward. "... Sorry." He plunged a blade into her heart, and she stilled.

As the sun peered over the horizon, the blood of the fallen dripped into the sky, highlighting the clouds shades of pink and red.

Silently, Anko picked up Taro's blade and plunged it into grass. Then she turned to face the sun, just like everyone else.


The wine of the living, the bane of the dead

It is the blood of the fallen that stains our skies red

When everything is said and done

What else is there to  do, but watch the sun?

Sasori promptly snapped the scroll shut.

 

Chapter Text

 

Medical genius, they called her. Tsunade's most likely successor but also pretty much guaranteed to inherit a place in Konoha City's civilian council from her mother, Haruno Mebuki.

For those things alone, and despite Tsunade's fearsome reputation, Sakura found herself on the receiving end on many marriage proposals. And when she turned them all down, the council pushed for a union with a suitor of their choosing.

But Tsunade, good old Tsunade pushed back even harder, sending her and Shizune (who was in a similar situation) to Ame to share their medical talents and strengthen their alliance. She was to come back every three months and report to Tsunade (and the country leaders and city council) on their progress. Akatsuki was the first place she stopped, and she found herself staying there with Shizune for almost the whole year.

Sakura was a well known face, even outside of Konohagakure, so when she accidentally knocked a blond boy flat on his ass, she expected him to expose her identity right there in the middle of the street.

Instead...

They had stared at each other. She had been about to apologize and maybe help him up when he pushed off his hands and landed on his feet.

"I'm Naruto."

It'd been so refreshing.

"Haruno Sakura."

He had then smiled deviously. "Hey, for knocking me over, you've gotta treat me to ramen, 'kay?"

"I... No way. I'm not spending my funds on ramen, Naruto-san."

"Ehh?! I'll report you to the police if you don't!"

"What?! No way are they going to listen to you!"

Naruto had pointed at an uncomfortable looking Sasuke, trailing behind a group of officers. He had been a mere trainee. "Teme! Arrest her!"

Sasuke had sent a withering glare their way, obviously reading the situation for what it was.

"A political shitstain" had been his exact words.

Sakura had smiled.


As they walked in a much more hurried pace than yesterday, Sakura stared numbly at her hands.

She could have died yesterday if not for Itachi's quick thinking. She owed him her life, but other things were currently on her mind.

I'm not supposed to be so... useless. Maybe I can't fight as well as the others even with my training with Tsunade-shishou, but... Sakura was supposed to be a medical prodigy. And she couldn't even save poor Taro before he turned into one of those monsters. The wound she had seen on his chest had been black and festering, but she hadn't had any chance to take a closer look. In fact, if she had been any closer to him at all, he would have tore her throat out.

"Hey, Sakura-chan?"

The medic tucked a strand of black hair (if they ever made it to Konoha, the first thing she would do was remove the horrendous dye) behind her ear as she turned. Uzumaki Naruto stared back at her awkwardly, as if he didn't really know what to say. It was unusual for most people who had met the boy, but Sakura was an exception. She knew Naruto had had a major crush on her before they drifted apart.

Sakura smiled, the action worn. "Naruto, hi." She hesitated before adding, "Walk with me?"

He did, and silence stretched between the two before he finally spoke up again.

"You're okay, right? He didn't do nothin', did he?"

She nodded. "I'm fine."

"Taro isn't," Anko, passing her on her right, muttered under her breath, just low enough for only Sakura to hear. The words were crushing. Sakura never really knew where Anko stood, but it was clear that the purple-haired woman held... resentment toward her.

If Tsunade were here, she would have exploded, no doubt. They both knew that there was nothing Sakura could have done to save Taro from turning. The poison had already been running strong in his veins before she even got to his side.

"Look," Naruto said bluntly. "It wasn't your fault that he died, okay? It was just a stroke of really bad luck." He kicked a stone with his shoe. "I'm really glad you're alive, Sakura-chan. I don't... want to lose another friend, y'know?"

Friend. Friend? Sakura stared blankly ahead. Are we still friends? Was it really that easy? Naruto seemed to read her like a book, and backtracked a little.

"I mean, uh, you're still my friend. Doesn't mean I'm yours, but I'll still be here. I ain't going anywhere, 'ttbayo." He rubbed the back of his head awkwardly, his brows knitted in a slightly embarrassed frown.

Sakura placed a hand on his shoulder, a small smile tugging on her lips as warmth bloomed in her chest. "Thank you... Naruto. I'd love to be friends with you again."

Because in times like these, people were too precious to lose.

"We should stop here," Deidara suddenly proclaimed when they reached a babbling brook. "It's easily defensible, and they can't go on for much longer." She jabbed her thumb at stragglers near the back of the group being ushered by Shisui, who was guarding them.

"A most bold declaration, Deidara!" Gai flashed his teeth at her and proceeded to further approve her idea by giving her a thumbs up. "The youth flowing in our veins will be restored, should we take this opportunity to rest our bodies!"

Hitoshi, now free of Ami's mother—she had died during last night's attack—voiced vehement agreement, as did most of the civilians.

Rations were torn open and devoured by exhausted travelers, while a party was sent out to stalk the riverbanks for fish. The hunting party consisted of Sasori, Deidara, Anko, and fourteen-year-old Yukari, whose hair had been significantly shortened. Unlike Lee, who was now sporting a bowl cut like Gai's thanks to Tenten's efforts, Yukari's hair had been slashed off by a long-clawed monster.

"There's literally nothing here," Yukari complained after ten minutes of walking up and down the riverbank. "Can't we go further up?"

"We could," Sasori answered, contemplating. "You and Anko go ahead, then, and see what you can find."

"Yes!" Yukari grabbed Anko by the hand and dragged her upstream. "Come on, senpai."

"Don't call me that, I hardly know you," Anko managed to bite out before the two females became two specks on the horizon.

Sasori turned to Deidara. "Let's get to work." He rolled up his pant legs and sleeves before stepping into the cold water, a shiver running up his spine. Deidara did the same, and, soon, they were slowly walking down the stream. In the distance, their group could be seen sitting or standing in a grassy clearing next to the stream.

Both artists removed their shoes and stepped into the stream, the cold biting at their ankles.

The sun was hitting its peak behind the clouds when Deidara let out a small yawn, eyes at half mast as she stretched, her back curving. "Ne, Danna, are there actually any fish here?" She tried to sound nonchalant, but there was a small waver in her voice that normally wasn't there.

He gave her a long stare before answering, languidly, "I don't know. I don't know enough about fish to answer that." Something tickled the skin of his ankle, and he looked down, seeing a fat fish squeezing between his feet. "Does that answer your question?"

She merely grunted, standing back as Sasori plunged his arm into the water and snatched the fish up by the tail. In his stone-tight grip, the aquatic creature flailed, mouth opening and closing as it struggled for life.

Something lurched in Deidara's stomach. It was dying. Dying so slowly and the way it was thrashing so longingly... She squeezed her eyes shut, massaging her temples. It was just the sun. Even if it was a cloudy day, it was just the sun. Behind her eyelids, Hitomi stared back at her, pale eyes hollow in death. A sharp gasp escaped her lips, causing Sasori to turn his head slightly.

"Brat?" When she didn't respond, he stepped toward her. "Deidara."

"I'm fine," she ground out, blinking her eyes open. The fish in Sasori's hand flapped one last time before stilling. "Can I just lie down for a second?" Without waiting for a response, she stepped out of the brook and lay back on the grassy riverbank.

Sasori stared at her for a moment longer before continuing on his hunt. A loud, triumphant shouting from further up the river caught his attention briefly—it seemed that Anko and Yukari had been successful. When he laid eyes on Deidara again, he saw that she had pulled out some clay and was molding a rough shape in her hands. Her fingers moved idly around the clay, fingertips leaving shallow indents on the surface. An eternity later, when he accepted that there would be no more fish other than the fat one he had caught earlier, he got out of the brook. By then, Deidara was nearly finished with her creation, and was looking notably more relaxed than she had been before.

He had felt the waves and waves of distress rolling off her form like a foul odor. It had made him pause. It hadn't even been a week since they had escaped Akatsuki's oppressive confines, and now a stranger, more imminent than ever threat had made itself known.

"A butterfly?" Sasori drawled out when her fingers unfurled to reveal a Lepidoptera sitting on her palm. She had smoothed out its edges extremely well, he had to admit, and had even implemented minute details on the wings and antennae. The dead fish felt heavy and awkward in his hand as he sat cross-legged beside her. She was still lying on her back, staring up at the clouds. When she finally registered him, her cobalt eyes flitted over to his diminutive form.

"No," she said, "it's a moth, un."

Interesting.

"So you prefer moths to butterflies?" he wondered.

"Not really," Deidara confessed, holding up her creation and admiring it. Sasori watched as she channeled a bit of her chakra into the construct, and as its wings began to flap. It took off into the skies, fluttering about as it enjoyed its newfound freedom. "But I knew someone who did." She was straight-faced, but Sasori could see the sadness in her eyes. He looked away.

A fine powder tickled his nose and he almost sneezed. Sasori glanced skyward to see the moth slowly disintegrating into a fine dust. Before long, it had completely disappeared, swept away by the wind.

"Nineteen dead," Deidara said abruptly, sitting up and wiping her damp palms on the knees of her pants. "That's... surreal, un." She stared out into the copse of trees across the babbling brook, tension filling her gaze, as if she expected a creature from the depths of hell to emerge from the twisted trunks. The canary's wing fringe on the left side of her face dropped to the right slightly as she hugged her knees to her chest. When the hair started to tickle her nose, she brushed it aside.

"More will follow," Sasori stated without preamble, feeling the sudden urge to get out some paper and pour his pent up frustration into words again. "You understand that, right, brat?" His tone was tinged with a grim, tired acceptance.

He was right, Deidara knew, and it terrified her. When had they become so... so intimate with death? They were constantly dancing around danger on their toes, and quiet, tranquil moments like this were hard to come by. Prior to the whole war fiasco, Deidara had never killed before, even while traveling on the road to Ame from Iwa. Now there was blood on her hands—more blood than she could have ever anticipated, and not only from the men and monsters (the lines were blurred in that regard, truly) she had killed in battle. It dribbled between her fingers and stained the teeth on her hand-mouths. She swallowed a lump in her throat, feeling her chest constrict a little. "Yeah," she admitted, loathing the words that emerged so easily from her mouth. "I do know, Sasori-no-Danna, and I hate it."

That made two of them.

Eventually, she stood, brushing grass off from the back of her pants; she had forgone her cloak. "We should head back, un." Her eyes moved to the dead fish still in Sasori's grip. "Sorry for not helping."

"It doesn't matter." He got up as well, the fish slapping against his thigh. "There was nothing else, anyway."

Their timing was perfect, it seemed, as Yukari and Anko were on their way back from up the stream. They had caught a fish even fatter than Sasori's fish—one that had had enough muscle to swim upstream.

Anko seemed to be in a broody mood, a scowl etched on her face. Neither Sasori or Deidara blamed her. The purple-haired woman had just gone through hell. Taro had been someone that she'd known before leaving Akatsuki, and he'd been a man that she had respected.

As they neared the group, not bothering to make conversation with one another, raised voices reached their ears.

Sasori raised an eyebrow. They hadn't even been gone for half an hour and they'd already started fighting? At this rate, they'd all be doomed.

"What's going on?" Yukari asked no one in particular, trying to peer over Sasori's shoulder to catch a glimpse of the conflict participants. "Sawako!" she called for her sister, jogging over to the mass of moving bodies. "Sawako!"

"We're all going to die out here, anyway!" a man with thinning hair was shouting hysterically at a white-faced Naruto, whose face was contorted in a deep, disapproving scowl. "What's the point, huh, kid?! Why won't you just let us go back?! I'd rather be in Akatsuki than out here!"

"Mori-san," Itachi got his attention, "if we go back, we we surely die. Don't be a fool."

Izuna, fussing in his mother's arms, startled when Mori raised his voice up even further.

"I'd rather be shot than... than be ripped into pieces!"

Deidara couldn't blame him. Not entirely. The prospect of dying in such a manner was confronting.

"Even so," Kakashi piped up, crossing his arms, "Death is death. Isn't a slim chance better than no chance at all?"

"Kakashi's right," Kagami put in. "I didn't stick my neck out just for you cowards to turn back."

Shisui side-eyed the masked Uchiha, sweatdropping slightly. "You could have put it more delicately..." Still, Kagami, Kakashi, and Itachi were right. They'd come too far, and going back was not an option that any of them had, not even harmless civilians like Mori.

Mori opened his mouth to argue again, but an animalistic screech in the distance had his teeth clattering shut.

Itachi looked at the direction that they had come from. "We have to move. According to Shikaku, there should be a more fortified bunker north from here."

Anguished murmurs rippled through the group as they hastily complied and started hauling ass. A red-haired girl with glasses was noticeably fidgeting as she walked in the middle of the pack, her face white as bone and her breathing heavy. Sakura noticed immediately.

A combination of fear and the high altitude, was Sakura's first guess. But, taking a closer look at the girl—she was around their age, she was guessing—she could see that it was something else. Sakura narrowed her eyes and thought about consulting Shizune.

When the red-haired girl keeled over, Kisame caught her, looking a little lost as to what to do. Chihiro, startled, held the teenager's arm up, blinking in confusion.

"Karin?" A woman's voice broke through the crowd. "Karin, what's wrong?!"

"Stay back," Shizune warned, appearing next to Sakura, who was already by Karin's side. "Calm down, sweetie," she soothed when Karin began to heave.

"The monsters!" Karin gasped, causing everyone to flinch back.

Sasori sent chakra to his fingers, preparing to form chakra blades around them. If this nobody civillian—Karin, was it?—was turning, they would have no choice but to put her down. He pushed any reluctance he may have had aside, preparing to kill. Kakashi's single working eye slid to his form. If the puppeteer noticed it, he didn't react.

Instinctively, Sakura and Shizune stepped backward, knowing firsthand just how far gone patients that were in the midst of turning were. But Sakura was still close enough to notice.

There was clarity in her eyes.

"It's okay, everyone," Sakura said, raising her voice above the panicked sea of voices. "She's clear."

"I'm not a monster!" Clearly, Karin had picked up on their terror and disgust. "But...! I can feel them. It... It was like that on the night of the attack as well." Woozily, Karin tried to stand, Shizune helping her up when her knees trembled and threatened to buckle. She shuddered, nauseous. "I was the one who panicked first." Her glasses slipped down her nose as she began to cry. "I'm sorry! I'M SORRY! I couldn't control myself...!"

"Are you serious?!" Hitoshi snarled, a vein popping in his neck as he regarded the sobbing girl with loathing in his black, beady little eyes. "You could have killed ALL of us! And what about those poor bastards that did die, huh?!"

"Shut up, you're not helping!" Rin snapped at him, whirling around and baring her teeth. She was so sick of that man and his constant complaining. It'd been her, Izumi, and her children that had nearly died that night, not him. They would have died if not for Sasuke's intervention.

"She's a sensor. Hypersensitive to chakra." Sakura's words cut off any retort Hitoshi might have had. "It's an extremely rare kekkei genkai that manifests naturally every few generations." She could have launched into a whole lecture about genetics and their relation to kekkei genkais, but now wasn't the time.

Karin nodded numbly, tears drying quickly from the wind blowing against her face. "I've been called that before, yes. They... feel so horrible. They really are monsters."

"How close are they?" Sasori inquired, trying to keep his voice calm for her sake.

"I-I can't tell... but I don't think they're that close... it definitely wasn't as heavy as last night's." Karin hung her head. "Can we please just go?"

"That would be best," Kakashi agreed, and they set off again, Karin's unique ability lingering in their thoughts. "Itachi, want me to scout ahead? It'd be safer if we know what's coming."

"Bring someone with you," Itachi recommended. "And don't get caught."

Kakashi turned to Shisui. "You up for it?"

He was, and the two martial artists zipped ahead, no longer needing to travel at the standard civilian pace.


Kisame couldn't help but feel a pang of pity for Chihiro as she watched Shogo and Itsuki chase each other, weaving around random people. Her eyes were even wider than usual. One of the twins—Yukari, the more outspoken one—scolded them when one of them bumped into her, tone snippish.

"Do you want to join them, kid?" he asked eventually.

"Eh? Could I...?" Chihiro tilted her head as she looked up at him. Biting her lip, she turned away. "But I'm older, and a stranger."

Kisame shrugged. "Fine then. Keep wallowing."

Chihiro stared at him. Then she marched right over to Itsuki and Shogo, causing Kisame to chuckle.

"Is she your protégée now?" Kisame turned his head to see Itachi slowing down to walk beside him. The Uchiha master was looking as serene as one possibly could in these conditions. The rest of them looked like they'd just gone through hell while Itachi, unfairly, seemed to only have ruffled feathers. Damn tengu.

"Hardly." Kisame rolled his right shoulder, feeling the muscles in his back stretch with a pleasant ache. "But she's a good kid. A lot better than that Uzumaki brat." Now that he got a closer look at Itachi, he'd have to review his judgement. The younger man most definitely wasn't merely ruffled. The lines on his face were incredibly pronounced—more so than when they'd first met, on that fateful day when Kisame had been arrogant and swaggering and hadn't known the hardship that war brought—and he looked like he hadn't slept in a decade. No longer was he clean-cut, his garb splattered with dry blood, plant juice, and mud from when a monster had sent him flying into the dirt with a right hook. Briefly, Kisame threw his attention back to Chihiro, who was talking animatedly with the younger boys, looking a little out of place. Itsuki, easily led along by his mother's conventions, seemed to turn his nose up at her, but Shogo was more open into accepting her into whatever childish game they were playing. In the end, Itsuki relented, loudly stating that she could only play if she wasn't a "prissy girl". Kisame had to smirk at that, especially when Chihiro hotly accepted his terms and proceeded to tag them both in record time. Kisame was glad. She deserved a chance to just be a kid, even out here in these woods.

"By the way things are looking, she will be, soon," Itachi remarked, noticing the fond gleam Kisame failed to suppress in his gaze. His lips quirked upward in a smile that was hardly there. "I'm glad you're happy, Hoshigaki-sama."

"Kisame."

Itachi's eyebrows rose slightly in surprise, as if to say, are you sure?

Kisame grinned, displaying his sharper-than-normal set of teeth. "What's the point of honorifics? Especially out here, when we have to rely on each other, Itachi?" Itachi stared so long at him that Kisame almost blushed at the attention he was receiving.

Itachi caved after a few more moments, his eyes closing as he smiled. "Of course, Kisame. Also," he turned his head to one of the black-haired medics—the one with pink emerging slightly from the roots; that dye must not have been as permanent as she'd thought—walking in front of them momentarily, "Sakura wishes to speak to you tonight. She is very interested in your fast healing ability. If you really mean what you said about relying on one another, you would allow her to examine you, wouldn't you?"

Kisame tried not to gape. Damn! This manipulative Uchiha bastard was playing him like a fiddle. But then again, Itachi did have a point, even if he was using Kisame's own words against him. Almost as if she sensed they were discussing her, Sakura turned back, large green eyes blinking in blatant curiosity. "Fine," he relented, a hint of bite in his words, "If I can prevent anymore deaths from happening, then I'll let her probe me." He wasn't as thick-headed as to think that wasn't what Itachi—and by extent, Sakura—was after. His healing factor could be studied and save a lot of lives if it were to be recreated.

"I've spoken to Shikaku," continued Itachi. "There should be a medical bunker not far away from the one we're heading to right now, and a mission to replenish our medical supplies will be held once we reach the fortified bunker in the north."

"Let me guess—you want me to join the party?"

He nodded.

"Alright then. Who else is coming?"

"Sakura, Kagami, Kakashi, and Sasori." That left Deidara, Gai, Kakashi, Shisui, and Itachi himself as the top fighters in their ragtag group—three quarters of the former Big 4, a pacifist prodigy, and another genius with a penchant for not dying within the ranks of the enemy. And Anko was particularly ruthless with Orochimaru's old blade, and Sawako could hit a monster's beady black eye from quite the distance with her bow and arrows. That was acceptable. Sasuke and Tenten were formidable fighters with weapons as well, and Izumi could hold her own.

Having heard his name, Sasori angled his head toward them before facing the front again, his entire body on alert for any incoming monsters, even though Karin hadn't piped up since her small breakdown earlier. The red-haired man was walking with Deidara and Chiyo, all of them engaging in some talk every once in a while.

"If we're lucky, we won't need them," Kisame answered in the end, after some deliberation.

Unfortunately, luck was not something they could rely on. Itachi and Kisame knew that very well.


Shisui tried not to gag when Kakashi stepped around the third dead animal they had spotted during their scouting expedition. It was some kind of snowshoe hare, its stomach ripped open like double-doors. A greenish-black fluid decorated its remains, oozing from the massive hole in its guts. The whole area was rotten with death, and Shisui had more than once advised Kakashi to turn back. The stench made Shisui cough, though Kakashi seemed unfazed. Possibly because of the shirt-mask he wore, which really brought out the patch over his left eye, in Shisui's opinion.

"We're close," Kakashi said, his voice low. "To whatever nest they're living in."

Shisui looked around the area, spotting a few more half-eaten animals sprawled promiscuously on the forest floor. "No kidding," he muttered under his breath, waving his hand past his nose to dispel the horrid stench invading his senses. "We should start scouting from the trees."

"Good idea."

They continued their scouting mission in the trees, blending into the shadows. Eventually, they came upon a gully, and a decimated camp. Half-decayed bodies littered the deserted camp in the ravine, and both men felt their stomachs lurch at the sight. Shisui thought that it was a miracle he didn't fall out of his tree.

"A massacre," the Uchiha whispered. Not unlike our own. But those men down there had been enemies, if the ripped flag flapping tiredly in the wind was any indication. The mountain route was still undoubtedly the safest path, but there had still been enemy camps around. Never in his life had Shisui seen so many dead Tsukigakure soldiers.

Suddenly, a hunched figure emerged from one of the caves in the side of the ravine. Drooling jaws snapped at the air as one of the most grotesque monsters to date made itself known to the world. It let out an otherworldly screech, and stepped into the center of the camp. In their safety above, Kakashi and Shisui watched with stiff spines.

Shisui could see its brain. Suddenly, those dead animals in the forest didn't seem so horrible anymore. The cap of the monster's skull had been removed, leaving only a jelly-like substance to protect the delicate organ.

It opened its mouth and Kakashi leaned forward, eyes narrowing.

"Has he stopped fighting it?" the beast rumbled as more monsters appeared in their line of vision. "The man who sees all, but nothing at all?"

"We have him contained, sir," another monster replied. "He will succumb shortly."

Oh, gods, they were sentient. They had ranks. And order. A hierarchy.

"Good." A terrible grin stretched across the lead monster's visage, stretching it menacingly. "Leader-sama will be pleased with our progress. An entire camp of human trash either dead or added to our ranks."

It was then Shisui noticed that the smaller, barely-clothed monsters were just loitering around, not paying their utmost attention to their leader. Their eyes were foggy. They were mindless. The Uchiha genius quickly made notes in his head, and he knew Kakashi was doing the same. So not all of them manifested sentience. That was good to know. But then, how did sentience manifest in some of then? He had a number of theories already whirling around in his mind like a maelstrom, but, obviously, none of them could be confirmed.

"What of the humans travelling through the mountains?"

"We'll add the useful ones to our ranks. I have already picked some out from last night's assault. As for the rest, kill them, and feed on them if you wish."

There were a few approving moans from the lower ranked monsters. And Shisui remembered the broken sticks in the path that they had come through—this was likely their stronghold, meaning that they had come in and out through that path.

"They're heading north," said the leader's second-in-command (or, at least, that was what Shisui assumed it—he?—was). "To Konohagakure, most likely. Once they cross to the other side of the mountain, they'll be in Konoha Country." The leader smiled again, and a shiver ran down Shisui's spine. "We'll cut them off before nightfall."

There was a shift in the wind, and Kakashi grabbed Shisui by the collar and jumped backwards. "We have to go," the Hatake said, urgency clear in his low voice. "Or they'll smell us. They might already have." He let go of the Uchiha and Shisui balanced himself and continued to leap through the trees with Kakashi. "If we die now..."

The others would be doomed, too.

Shisui pushed himself to even faster speeds. No! I won't let them die. I'll defend them with my life if I have to. It's my duty... as a warrior of Ame!


Karin's paleness and shaking framing only further convinced them that the information Kakashi and Shisui brought back with them was correct. The sky was an odd mixture of color as the sun set in the distance, behind heavy storm clouds.

"Another attack so soon?" someone blurted. "H-how merciless... Am I dreaming?"

Dreaming or not, Sasori strongly suggested waking the fuck up because this was their reality now. It was cold, twisted, and left a bitter taste in his mouth, but closing your eyes at this point would only lead to more unnecessary death.

"Are you fucking serious?!" Deidara suddenly shouted, pupils dilating and fists clenching. Dammit! We can't even catch a break! But at least they had forewarning this time—surely, that had to count for something? It means nothing if we don't know what to do with it. The non-fighters in the group were simply standing around, knees knocking in terror as visions of their own deaths plagued them. I... I can't take this anymore. She swallowed a lump in her throat, leaning against Rin's shoulder.

The brown-haired widow could feel her friend trembling. It wasn't with her usual anticipation—it was fear. It ripped through all of their veins with a cold fire, freezing and burning at the same time.

"The bridge!" Shikaku's voice snapped through the air. "There should be a bridge a mile from here that we can cross to safety—we'll cut it down once everyone's across."

Right, the bridge. Sasori vaguely recalled it being mentioned by the Nara just hours ago. He shook himself out of his stupor. No more daydreaming, he told himself, he could dream plenty when he was cold and dead and six feet underground.

Itachi was speaking hurriedly with Izumi, who looked torn at his words, her eyes growing wide and stricken when he mentioned something. She held Izuna tightly in her arms, as if she feared that the wind—it was picking up vigorously—would tear their son away from her warm hold. The low bun she wore her hair in had come loose again, and wisps of dark brown—nearly black—locks framed her face in a disorderly mess. Then Izumi's eyes hardened, and she nodded grimly. Itachi kissed her forehead before pulling back and getting everyone else into order.

Sasori turned away as Itachi's words fell upon his ears. It made sense, and was probably the best plan they had. Get all the civilians to safety. Anyone who is able and willing will fight on the frontlines, while the rest fall back and defend those who can't defend themselves. Sasori had seen more than his fair share of blood in the past, and he was prepared to rip apart more skin and muscle when Itachi opened his mouth again.

"Sasori, Deidara, Gai, Sasuke, I want you to leave with the rest." By now, the fighters had separated themselves from the non-fighters, the civilians clumped together to the side, looking uncertain. Unsurprisingly, few actually wanted to fight the incoming monsters head-on.

"What?" Sasori said cuttingly, Sasuke echoing his disbelief near the back of the 'fighting' group. "Itachi—what is the meaning of this?" He waited for Deidara to protest as well, but her voice never sounded. "You know I can fight those things. They won't be a problem for me."

"I know you can, but," Itachi's eyes flashed as the first drops of rain began to fall, "I don't want you to shed anymore blood today, Sasori. Instead, use your abilities to save as many lives as you can. Deidara, this goes for you, too. You two work well together and are largely defensive fighters—you're skills will be more useful in defending than attacking. Gai?"

"Yosh!" Gai gave an affirmative nod, eyes like steel. "You have my word that I will defend them until I take my last breath. Those unyouthful beasts will not get past our solid defense."

"Good."

"And what about me?" Sasuke angrily demanded. His gray shirt was splattered with monster blood, as were his pants. "You've never been an idiot—you know that my skill lies in offense!"

"Sasuke," Sakura started hesitantly, but he talked right over her.

"What are you trying to pull? You're not looking down on me, are you?"

"Sasuke..." Naruto frowned. Hasn't it ever occurred to the bastard that his brother might be trying to protect him? He could see it practically bleeding out of Itachi's stoic expression—he knew it because he'd felt that toward Konohamaru and his little gang before. Currently, the Sarutobi boy, Moegi, and Udon were standing a little behind Naruto on the non-fighting side.

"You tried to save me from Madara," Itachi stated, and Sasuke stiffened for a moment, halting his verbal barrage. "Please allow me to save you as well, otouto."

A silence stretched between them before someone—Naruto—called out, "Come on! We have to hurry up, Sasuke!" Perhaps it was the lack of -teme, but Sasuke turned around with a surly expression on his face, stalking over to where the non-fighters (some voluntary and some not) were standing.

"They're coming! So—so close...!" Karin's teeth were practically chattering at his point, and it wasn't from the incoming storm. An older woman had her hands on her shoulders to try and stabilize her. Sasuke, standing next to her, shot her a brief glance as he felt her vibrate.

"We've wasted enough time," Kagami cut in, Sharingan flaring behind the single eye-hole in their purple mask. "Even I can feel them from here."

Itachi ran his eyes over the now-soaked people in front of him, gaze lingering on his wife and child. "Be safe."

They ran, Gai and Shikaku leading the pack while Deidara and Sasori rounded them up from the back, the latter pushing forward a woman who had slipped in the mud. Soon, they disappeared over a grassy mound.

Itachi turned his attention to the remaining members of their group of forty-nine. He could feel a dark force pressing against his ribs, slowly suffocating him. Any minute now. He drew out two blunt kunai from his mostly-empty weapons pouch—one he had pillaged from the previous bunker.

Kakashi, Kisame, Shisui, Kagami, Anko, and a few more nondescript fighters stood alongside him, each of them tensely regarding their surroundings. When the first monster emerged from the tree line, giant claws sinking into the dirt, an arrow flew into its eye, and it howled.

Itachi whipped around, Sharingan blazing as he caught sight of the perpetrator. One of the twins, Sawako, was standing on the grassy hill above them. She gave them a quick salute before vanishing over the mound. The Uchiha smirked grimly as more of those unearthly creatures appeared, not even pausing to help the screaming, wounded one. Shisui had been right—they truly were mindless. It was the sentient ones they had to look out for.

Vines shot out at them, and Anko and Kisame cut through the first wave of them.

The battle had begun.


They ran downhill through copses of trees, panting hard and pumping their leg muscles as fast as they could. Hitoshi, the big, bull-like man, was running close to Gai, as if he expected the spandex-clad taijutsu master to defend him if a monster got close. And, to his credit, Gai probably would have.

Deidara squinted through the rain, dew clinging to her long, dark eyelashes. Her entire world was blurry, and she had nearly tripped a couple of times. Only her instinct had saved her, and she wondered when someone would trip up.

A roar bellowed behind them, far too close for comfort.

A warm body was flung into Deidara's side and her breath hitched as the small figure corrected herself and continued to run, stumbling over a root. Chihiro, Deidara matched a name to the round face of the little girl, Kisame's shadow. She was much tinier than Deidara had thought. She was supposed to be nine years old, but she looked more like she was—

Hitomi's face—her blood trickling out of her mouth and her dead eyes facing the sky—flashed through her mind, and she nearly choked. No! I can't...! Chihiro overtook her and the hold on her throat gradually faded away.

"Brat!" Sasori's voice sounded next to her ear. "Stop dreaming!"

"Alright!" she snapped, her voice pitching up.

Sasori gave the side profile of her face a long, hard look. Deidara, you fool... If she died, he wouldn't forgive her, even if he could see those tell-tale signs of a scar on her heart that had never quite healed. Sticks snapped behind them, and Sasori's pupils dilated. Shit, they're onto us. Dammit, how could Itachi let them escape?! It wasn't as if he hadn't saw this coming, but this just made things a thousand times harder than it needed to be and Sasori wasn't sure if had the patience to deal with such a thing.

"I got it, yeah." Deidara turned her body around, her blonde hair whipping past her face as she slowed down. The sleeves of her torn cloak fell down her arm, revealing her hand-mouths, which were already chewing. A dark shape lumbered toward them at a terrifying fast pace, obscured by the fog that was a consequence of the downpour they were experiencing. Clay shapes spewed out of her hands, blurring in the air as they flew toward the shape. It's not as effective in the rain, but it'll have to do! "Katsu!"

A huge explosion sounded, Sasori's ears ringing from the blast as the wind generated battered against his back. "Couldn't you have picked a quieter art?"

"Not on your life, un." The smoke began to clear and a strained smile reached Deidara's lips. "There's no way it could have survived that—that was C2 level—what?!"

The fog had cleared in the explosion, allowing them to see just what had happened to the beast. Thick, sturdy, and extremely charred vines were wrapped around its body, the shape reminiscent of a flower bud. Slowly, the vines unwrapped and sunk back into the center of its back.

"You damn, persistent bastard!" Deidara screamed at it, her lips pulled back in a frustrated snarl. Faster than Sasori had ever seen her move, she hurled more bombs at the thing, these ones larger and more humanoid. They were also attached to her hand-mouths, the white clay string disappearing behind the tongues. It was almost like—

"Have you been taking notes?" Sasori mused, a puff of smoke concealing him momentarily before being blown away. A puppet now floated in front of him, and he directed his wooden soldier at the monster.

"You wish," she ground out. "It's because of your smug face that I don't use this often, un... I developed it before I even came to Ame!"

The monster screeched and immediately began attacking their constructs, two clay and one wooden. It was a disadvantage for the two artists—the heavy rain was hindering their sight as well as the endurance of their puppets.

Eventually, though, Sasori managed to get his puppet to stab it through the heart while Deidara's clay humanoids melted against the monster's back, arms, and legs. The corpse spewed juice, and a muscle in Sasori's face twitched in disgust. He would never get used to that. At least humans had the decency to die normally.

The clay eroded in the rain, while Sasori placed his puppet back into his storage scroll, ready to whip it out again should another monster attack them. By now, the rest of the fleeing group was already far away. Looking up a little more, they could see a tiny wooden bridge in the distance, swaying in the gale.

They quickly caught up to their group and slowed down, forcing to travel at a civilian's running pace.

"We're almost there!" Gai roared over the noise of the wind.

Suddenly, there was a squeal, and a mousy-haired woman fell forward, picking herself up with her dirty hands. She winced when she tried to get up. "My ankle!" she wailed, her pain bleeding into her voice.

Collective caterwauls echoed in the distance as approaching demons bayed for their blood. Unsure, some people began to back away from the injured woman.

"Fuck it!" Hitoshi abruptly blurted, his tone grating. "We can't afford to be slowed down, let's leave her!" He ran forward, pausing when nobody else immediately followed. "Well?!"

"Are you insane?!" Tenten yelled at him, barely keeping her emotions in check as her voice grew shrill. She bent down to help the woman up. "I've got you." Lee bent down to help her, hoisting her up.

"I'll carry her," Sakura offered, and the two shot her skeptical looks. She sighed. "Look, we're on a time schedule and I've carried both Itachi and Izumi when she was pregnant before. At the same time. I can take it."

"You damn asshole!" Naruto shouted at Hitoshi as they ran, eyes burning with fury. "How could you abandon her like that?!"

"It was her or us, you dumb brat!"

"Hah! More like her or you."

"Shut up, Naruto," Sasuke suddenly cut in, quietly.

Naruto shot him a confused glance. "Huh?"

"Just... shut up." Sasuke turned away from him, eyes burning into Hitoshi's back. The bulky man clearly wasn't grateful for a traitor's intervention, but Sasuke understood exactly how he felt. Because he had felt the same way as well, back in Akatsuki. The need to survive at all costs. He had thrown away his pride, his honor as an Uchiha, and had twisted the words of his dying mother into deluding himself that ignoring the suffering of others around him was right. It was funny, really, how Hitoshi would have probably followed a path similar to Sasuke's if their roles were reversed. And yet, no one was accusing Hitoshi of being a traitor to his country. Then again, what-ifs and hypothetical situations would never be a good enough reason to condemn someone.

The Uchiha could feel Naruto's sad blue gaze linger on him for a little longer before he sped up to catch up with Sakura, who was impressively carrying a grown woman in her arms as she ran. The black-haired medic had one hand hovering over the woman's ankle, and before long, the mousy-haired woman was gingerly jogging beside her, helped along by both Shizune and Sakura.

They were nearly to the bridge when they heard the first of three following explosions. The monsters were frightfully close to them, and Deidara had let loose her bombs, pumping more chakra into them than she ever had during her time in a peaceful Akatsuki, where there had been no reason to kill or seriously maim.

"Stop!" Sasori ordered sharply when she went to make a fourth explosive. "Conserve your chakra before you faint from exhaustion."

"They're getting closer...!" Deidara's voice reached the upper end of her vocal range. "Danna!"

The blade of a puppet sliced through one of the monster's vines before cutting its heart in half. It shrieked, collapsing, its juices draining out of its pores.

"GO!" Sasori shouted, making a few loitering people jump.

"This way, everyone," Gai instructed them as he led the group down the wooden bridge. It was worn and secured only by rope, but looked to still be able to support their weight if distributed evenly. "One at a time. Careful!" The gale picked up and the bridge swayed, a few people screaming. Sawako, who still wasn't on the bridge, desperately shot one of the few remaining arrows she had at the closest monster. It landed between its eyes and sank into its brain. It howled in pain but was hardly deterred, and lashed its long claws out at Sawako, who was trembling.

"NO! GET OUT OF THE WAY!" Deidara launched herself at the teenager. Sawako's twin, Yukari, was already on the bridge, and turned her head around just as Deidara screamed, urgency betraying her fear. Sasori killed another monster and bought himself just enough time to whip around and see what happened next.

His brown eyes widened as blood sprayed through the air. No...! No, Deidara! The blonde woman was knocked backward by the force of the swipe, coughing as she picked herself up. Warm blood was splattered on her face, dripping between her eyes, but it wasn't her own.

There was an anguished sob-shouting as Yukari halted movement on the bridge, arm stretched outward and tears pouring down her face.

Sawako hadn't even had time to scream when the monster had cleaved her in half—from groin to the top of her skull—with one easy motion before using its other arm to smack Deidara aside. Redness had misted outward as one half of her twitching body tumbled off the side of the ravine, hitting a single branch protruding from the side of the cliff before disappearing into fog.

Hyuuga Hanabi and Hinata, at the back of the line, both put their hands to their mouths in horror. Hinata vomited off the side of the bridge as warm tears pricked her eyes, sobbing from the great heave.

Seeing that she was dazed, Sasori killed the final monster in the wave and lifted Deidara up by the arm. That could have been her who had been sliced in half, and not poor Sawako. And Sasori wouldn't have been able to do anything about it. "Are you insane?!" he yelled at her, staring intently into her wide blue eyes. "What were you thinking...?!"

"But I—"

"Look at me, Deidara. You couldn't have saved her." Tears appeared in her eyes but she pretended like they weren't there, so he did, too. "Don't be so foolish next time, you damn idiotic brat." He released his hold on her shoulders and rubbed his face with his hands. "It wasn't your fault so don't dwell on it."

She flared. "Don't say that so easily!" she spat hatefully. "Sawako is dead because I didn't make it to her on time!" She was so young! Deidara wanted to pull her hair out. Why were they dying? The ones that have so much to live for!

"If you had made it to her on time, it would be you in her place!" Sasori hissed, grabbing her wrists. "Deidara!"

"What?!"

"Stop blaming yourself for their deaths." His brow pinched and he looked to the other side of the bridge, where most of them had gotten across. To his relief, his grandmother was one of them.

Deidara said nothing. Their. He said 'their'. Why... does he know me like that? She kept her silence even when he took her by the hand and led her across the rickety bridge. When they were halfway across she had regained their bearings. "I'm okay now, un." She breathed out, and Sasori noted that her breath smelled like bile. She had vomited in her mouth. Trying to keep his emotions in check, he turned away.

Suddenly, the bridge swayed intensely, and the pair grabbed at the ropes. On the other side, a particularly large monster was standing at the end of the bridge. It smiled, revealing black, curved teeth that were much too big for its mouth. It was so much bigger than the rest that had attacked them that the only thing they could do was assume that it was sentient.

It jumped forward and closed half the distance between them, causing the bridge to sway. The five or so civilians left on the bridge screamed, clutching onto the side ropes for dear life. Gai rushed forward, helping two of them to the other side. "Sasori, Deidara!" the warrior dressed in green called. "Hurry!"

Suddenly, Hyuuga Hinata tipped and fell off the side of the bridge, screaming.

"NEE-CHAN!" Hanabi shrieked, grabbing at her sister.

"HINATA!" Naruto bellowed at the same time from safety, reaching down the cliff, as if it would save her.

Sasori swore as the monster stepped closer.

"Almost all of my comrades are dead, and your surviving comrades are coming this way," the monster declared, sharpening its claws on the rope that held the bridge together. "This will be my end, and yours, but there will always be more of us."

Hanabi had caught Hinata by the wrist. "H-hold on...!"

Sasori would have rushed forward, but it would be too late. Gritting his teeth, he ran to safety with Deidara, both of them heaving up the Hyuuga sisters as they dashed for the others. As if time had slowed, he felt the surface beneath his feet gradually disappearing. Deidara, behind him, reached out her hand, and he took, it holding it tightly. There was blood dripping down her head. A head injury or Sawako's blood? he wondered briefly as he felt his stomach lift and fall.

"Danna!" she shouted, and he felt like was underwater, his face aimed at the weeping skies. Then a force exerted on his right wrist jerked him back to the reality he hated. Hanabi grunted with effort as her little muscles worked to support both his and Deidara's weight. Her left hand was wrapped around a piece of rope dangling down the length of her arm. Hinata was already on the other side, trying to reach for her younger sister. But they were too far down—not even Gai would be able to reach them, though he was certainly trying, grabbing the wooden post that had secured the bridge and trying to shimmy down the cliff side.

"Hanabi!" Hinata was crying. "Hanabi!"

Sasori looked down and saw that Deidara was dangling in the air, the only thing keeping her suspended in the air Sasori's grip on her hand. He couldn't properly see her face with her hair falling down around it. He couldn't use his chakra strings either, because both of his hands were occupied, and he wasn't sure if his strings could even handle their combined weight.

"Nnngghhh!" Hanabi grunted with exertion as she slipped down the rope. She could see her sister's tear-stained face upon looking upward. "Hinata-nee..."

By now, Gai was trying to climb down the ropes himself, his heels barely sitting on a ledge on the cliff and his arm outstretched. But Hanabi wouldn't be able to reach it as she still had Sasori and Deidara dangling from her arm.

"Let go." Sasori's eyes flitted downward to Deidara, who had spoken. "If you don't let go, Hanabi, we'll all die, un."

Sasori stared at her, speechless. "Brat—"

"I know what I'm doing," Deidara cut him off, tilting her chin so he could look her in the eye. "Sasori, I need you to trust me. I'm not going to let us die when we've come this far, un."

"What are you up to?" he muttered, but she didn't hear. "Fine," he said, louder this time. "I trust you, Deidara." With my life, it occurred to him, and perhaps to her as well.

A small, relieved, and apologetic smile reached her lips. "Thank you... Hanabi, let go."

"What?!" the little Hyuuga clamored. "B-but—"

"Dammit, Hanabi, just let go! Before the rope breaks for you, too! Hanabi!"

"Listen to her, Hanabi!" Hinata hated herself for saying those words, but if her little sister could be saved, she'd say them aloud. "Hanabi, please!"

"Hanabi!" Deidara was shouting. "Let. Go."

It was then Sasori's patience thinned out. "Get ready, brat." He looked down at her. Then, without waiting for verbal confirmation, he slackened and Hanabi's grip around his wrist came loose.

They plummeted down the ravine. Wind was beating painfully against them and Sasori could barely manage to keep his eyes open. "WELL?!" he bellowed at Deidara. "What's your plan?!"

Deidara, the tears in her eyes carried upward and away by the wind, spread her palms beneath them. "This. You think I'd die here, Danna? If I'm going to die... it'll be with a bang!"

FOOSH!


Gai helped a shaking Hanabi up, rubbing soothing circles on her back when she promptly threw up her lunch over the cliff. Hinata hugged her sister close to her once she was done, whispering soothing words.

"Oh my god," Hanabi croaked. "Oh my god..." She vomited again, this time onto the grass. Frantically, she scrambled to the edge of the ravine, looking downward. Where are they? WHERE ARE THEY?! Had she really killed them? Maybe if she'd been stronger—

A flapping noise reached her ears, and she did a double take. Was it just the wind, or was something really happening down there? On the other side of the gully, Itachi and the fighters emerged from the trees, their numbers not as great as before. All of them were covered in blood. Itachi stared at the broken bridge, then at his wife and child on the other side, safe.

"Deidara!" Izumi was hysterical—had been when her friend had finally fallen. Izuna was crying from all the disturbance and noise, and Izumi was desperately bouncing him up and down a little to try and halt the crying. She was standing near the cliff edge, just a little behind Hanabi. Daichi's face was white with shock, matching his mother's complexion.

Deidara... The woman he had looked up to so much back then was gone. First otou-san, now Deidara-nee?! Tears welled up in his eyes and fell from his lashes as he tilted his head down, teeth gritted in a pain that ran deep. His spiky curls had gotten long in the months, and now fell around his face, stopping at his cheek. He was vaguely aware of his mother crying as well, and he could hear traces of her anger at the world for taking another person away from her.

Chiyo did not weep. Not yet. Sasori, my foolish grandson... She walked up behind where Naruto and Hanabi were crouching, looking down at the seemingly endless drop. Her eyes narrowed. Could it be...?

A strange shape was rising quickly behind the fog. Then—

FWOOM!

Chiyo and those standing near the front were nearly blown away by the sheer intensity of the wind. She looked up, seeing a great white bird among the clouds, its wings beating. Fog trailed behind it before disappearing into the clouds. As it descended, she could pick out the red hair of her grandson, sitting on his ankles on the behemoth's back, an unconscious Deidara in his arms. He held her close to his chest, so that the wind wouldn't blow her away.

Stunned, everybody could only step back when the bird landed on their side, and Sasori jumped off, still carrying Deidara. He noticed Sakura moving toward him, and, exchanging nods with her, he passed Deidara to her. Sakura immediately began a diagnostic test, hands glowing a minty green. "Chakra exhaustion," Chiyo heard Sakura mutter.

Then Sasori got on the bird again—it was a clay one, upon closer inspection—and Chiyo noticed that he was using his famed chakra strings to control it, since Deidara was out of the game. He directed it to the other side, where Itachi and the other fighters were stranded. Sasori carried them across two at a time, not wanting to put too much weight on a construct that he was unfamiliar with.

Eventually, all of them were safe as they could be, and the clay bird was starting to erode from the rain, since Deidara wasn't actively channeling her chakra through it for obvious reasons.

Sasori looked around but none of them said anything.

There was nothing to say.

By now, Sakura had already finished examining Deidara, and declared her clear of any fatal injures, and said that she would need a lot of rest, having exhausted her chakra supply. She hoisted Deidara up in her arms with ease.

But then Sasori stepped forward. "Wait. Let me."

"Sasori—" Sakura cut herself off, knowing that they were close. "Alright, but be careful with her. Keep her head up. Kisame, I need to speak to you..." As Sasori adjusted his hold on Deidara, who seemed a lot smaller unconscious than awake, Sakura drifted over to where Kisame was standing. Chihiro had attached herself to his leg, pleased that he was alive and well.

In the end, everybody who came back alive was clear, checked over by Sakura, Shizune, and even Chiyo, who had been an adept medic in the past (and probably still was if given the right opportunity). There were forty-five of them now, and their absence in their ranks was like a gaping hole that all of them tried to ignore.

The one who broke down first was Yukari, when Itachi handed her Sawako's bow and arrows, which had been strewn in the grass when he had reached the bridge. The girl sobbed wretchedly, sinking into her knees and clutching the weaponry close to her chest. She screamed, and screamed, and not even Karin's perpetual nervous fidgeting could get anyone to move. It was with a great horror and realization that they watched her mind be torn apart at the seams. No one said anything, not even Hitoshi or Anko.

"Okaa-chan, what happened?" Shogo asked his mother sometime later, voice quieter than usual. "Why was she crying? Was it because of that girl... the one who... died?"

"Yes," Asagi whispered to him, kissing his forehead as she hugged him close in their bed in the bunker. Dinner had been had about an hour ago.

"Am I... gonna die?"

"Not if I can help it." Her voice was steel.

"... Okay. Goodnight, okaa-chan."


Deidara woke up in the night with a pounding headache. She winced when she shifted her head on her pillow. Damn! What the fuck? Her eyes widened. She was in pain. She was alive. She would have laughed had she not realized that everybody around her was probably sleeping. Unable to help herself, she did a head count, and the results were disheartening.

Forty-five, she thought tiredly, rubbing her eyes as she slowly sat up in her bed. Her throat was parched, and she longed for water. She knew that Sasori had a canteen somewhere, and since she couldn't see him in the sleeping room, she assumed that he was awake. He's always been a bit of an insomniac, yeah, especially recently...

Quietly, she stepped around the sleeping bodies on the floor, and went out. This bunker—it was supposed to be more new and fortified—had a kitchen, to her relief. Sasori was there as well, his canteen conveniently open and in front of him as he sat at the kitchen counter, scribbling something on parchment. A lamp was sitting on the kitchen counter, giving him enough light to write whatever it was he was writing.

Deidara cleared her throat and immediately regretted it when she remembered just how dry it was. Wincing, she rubbed her neck. "Hey, Danna," she rasped, walking over to where he was sitting. There were two other seats, and she took the one on his right, peering over his shoulder. Not bothering to ask permission, she grabbed his canteen and gulped down the remainder of the water, breathing out a small, content sigh when the prickly feeling in her throat disappeared. "You couldn't sleep again? What are you even...? Danna, is this poetry?"

"No," he said snappishly, shooting her an annoyed glare. "It's just bullshit."

"It's so flowery, un." Deidara shamelessly read it with an amused grin.

Snorting, Sasori put it away. "What do you want?"

"I just wanted to talk, yeah. Just..." Her smile grew more world-weary, and Sasori schooled his face so he wouldn't say something he would regret. "Thanks, I guess, for trusting me enough to let go. Actually, to be honest, I wasn't sure if it would work. I'd never made anything so complex that size before. I was relying on the updraft to bring it up high enough for us to jump to safety, un."

"I figured," Sasori replied, though he didn't sound angry. "I suspected it was one of your spur of the moment plans... when you dropped from chakra exhaustion, it was pretty obvious."

"Un. I'm guessing Sakura had to lug me all the way here?" Deidara could imagine the black-haired medic's annoyed yet concerned visage as she carried Deidara through the forest on her back.

His eyes went blank for a moment before he answered, "No, I did."

"Eh?!" Deidara's chair nearly tipped over when she suddenly lurched. "Why?"

He didn't really have an answer for that. 'Because I wanted to' wasn't adequate enough, and 'because I felt obligated' was even worse.

"You didn't have to, you know," Deidara continued, taking in his silence with ease. "But I'm glad, I guess."

It was his turn to ask why this time.

"Why? Because I feel like I've gotten through to you, yeah, especially after everything. You always seemed so closed off, even compared to Itachi. Sometimes, it's like I hardly know you."

"That's a little unfair," Sasori pointed out lightly, "considering I hardly know you." She scrunched up her nose in displeasure, and a smile that was barely there had his lips quirking upward. "Maybe I'll tell you about myself someday, brat. About what I used to do in Suna and my family. About... Hatake."

"Kakashi?"

"No, not that one."

"Hm."

"Until then, you'll just have to wait."

"Ironic," she said, her chest rumbling in amusement, "considering how you hate keeping people waiting. You're a walking contradiction, un. Well, if you want to withhold so badly, fine. But that won't stop me from telling you about me, yeah. Hope you don't mind, Danna, because I'm going to do it whether you like it or not."

"Deidara?"

"What?"

"I don't mind."

Deidara blinked in surprise, a slight blush appearing on her cheeks as she lowered her chin, her hair falling over her face. "Good. Then let's get started, un. I was born in a small village in Iwagakure..."

They talked long into the night, and Sasori found immersed himself into her past. At last, when it was getting late, they had to retire to bed, expecting an early morning. For the first time in a long while, both of them slept soundly.


Crunch.

Crunch.

Crack.

In the night, a half-transformed monster hauled itself over the cliff, panting heavily, breath rotten with the stench of death. It stood, long claws moving about as it cracked it joints.

"Hanabi!"

It squeezed its eyes shut.

"Hyuuga... Hyuuga..."

Its eyes opened.

"HYUUGA!"

Chapter Text

 

Cracka-boom!

Daichi winced, feeling the thunder box his ears as he shifted on one of the few beds provided in the bunker. Beside him, Rin slept soundly, the stress that had engulfed her since the death of Obito erased from her features, the muscles on her face slackened. Hikari was squeezed between her big brother and her mother, snoring softly with her rosebud lips parted. The Uchiha boy craned his neck to try and stop his nose from burying into Hikari's dark brown locks—he would sneeze, and he didn't want to disturb everybody from well-needed rest.

Feeling thirsty, Daichi quietly slid off the side of the bed, shivering at the feel of the cold floor on the bottom of his feet. Sneaking around sleeping bodies—there weren't enough beds to provide for everyone, so most slept on futons or simply hard concrete—Daichi exited the bedroom and went over to the only other room in the bunker: the kitchen. It was where they kept all their supplies, including the water canteens (the water collected from the mountain's pure rivers). He chose a random one and drank just enough to quench his thirst.

Thunder rumbled above him, and Daichi's shoulders tensed, his fingers pressing into the skin of the canteen painfully. He hated thunder. He hated the rain. Most of all, he hated how Obito wasn't here to comfort him anymore.

Don't be a baby, he scolded himself, screwing the cap back on the canteen again and putting it back where he had found it. The crack of lightning sounded again, and Daichi found himself jumping. It wasn't just the thunder—he jumped at almost every little noise now, and he wasn't the only one. The need for constant vigilance was greater than ever, even in perceived safe environments. It was so dark in the kitchen—dark enough that Daichi wouldn't have seen a clever monster hiding in the shadows upon entering. Paranoia creeping up his spine, Daichi tossed a wary glance over his shoulder, expecting an otherworldly thing to emerge from the darkness and lash out and him with its long claws. He had not seen the brutal way which Sawako had been murdered, having closed his eyes as soon as Deidara screamed and the monster lunged with death permeating its entire body, but the... knowledge of her gruesome, undeserved death sat at the back of his mind, whispering harshly about how the same fate could befall him.

When Daichi returned to the sleeping quarters, he was surprised to find everyone up, wariness glinting in their eyes. Multiple lamps had been turned on in his absence, and he was able to see the relief fill his mother's eyes as she spotted him. Guilt pricked at his heart, and he returned to her side, wrapping his arms around her lithe frame.

Hikari, blinking sleepily, looked up at their mother, having just woken up from a deep sleep. "What's going on? Why is everyone awake, aniki?"

Before Daichi could answer, a wet, hacking noise filled the room and chilled him to the core.

Izumi worriedly crouched over him, Itachi coughed his lungs out, and Sakura and Shizune didn't even need to use a diagnostic medical jutsu to tell that he had a serious lung infection. Izuna lay asleep on the futon a bit behind his mother, completely unaware to what was happening in this dark world.

Itachi took a deep, rasping breath, chest heaving, before five others joined him in his discordant coughing. Mori—the man with the thinning hair who had argued with Naruto yesterday—hacked away, choking on his own mucus at times. Young Udon, Shogo's grandmother, Yukari, and little Itsuki seemed to be ill with the same disease that had suddenly befallen Itachi, seemingly manifesting especially strongly in the young ones—particularly Udon, who had always had a weak constitution.

"Oh," Izumi's stricken gaze landed on her sleeping child, "Deidara, could you please—?"

Deidara hastily picked up Izuna, looking a little distressed as she stepped far outside of her comfort zone. "I got it, un."

"Sounds like a terrible case of bronchitis," Chiyo commented at the edge of the room. She had refused the bed offered to her as an elderly woman, trading the mattress for a futon on the floor with someone who needed it more. "Do you have any medical supplies to treat it?"

They didn't. They had bandages, basic painkillers, and maybe a splint or two, but nothing beyond what could be found in a basic clinic. A group was supposed to have been sent out to a nearby medical bunker tonight, but the recent attack and the pouring rain had forced that little expedition to be postponed until tomorrow.

"We could use our chakra to thin the mucus," Shizune said with a slow nod of the head. She bit her lip. "It would ease their breathing and altogether make things more comfortable, but it won't be enough to kill the bacteria."

"Bacteria still exist in such a cold environment?" Hanabi questioned, hair mussed on one side.

"Yes. Some strains survive better in the cold than others, and that makes them especially dangerous," Sakura informed, passing one hand through her hair. "Okay, okay... I won't lie, this is potentially life-threatening. Itachi, if we want any chance of curing this, we'll need those supplies now. Considering how quickly and out-of-the-blue they manifested, I'm guessing the bacteria lay dormant until certain conditions were achieved, and reproduces at an incredible rate."

"Please!" Itsuki's mother blurted, rubbing her ill son on the back as he coughed painfully. "You must go and save my son! He's the only one I have left!"

Everyone exchanged nervous glances, before Kisame walked forward. "I'm down. If it means keeping more people from dying, then I don't see why not."

"Not that I disagree," Anko said, crossing her arms and eyeing all of them, her piercing viper-like gaze lingering on Sakura for a moment. "But you do know that it's a storm out there, right? This mission could potentially end up disastrous." Even in the chilly bedroom, a nervous bead of sweat was trickling down the side of her head. "And is it really safe, even without the rain? Just because we haven't seen any monsters doesn't mean there aren't any."

Discussion was thrown back and forth, Anko's concerns validated by a few more people. In the end, however, it was decided when the heavy rain lessened to a gentle pour. Sakura, along with Kakashi, Kisame, Kagami, and Sasori for protection, headed off to the medical bunker with Shikaku's map memorized.

"Be safe," people murmured as they exited, crowding at the only entrance.

Sasori, at the back of the group, was the only one who glanced backward as he stepped out into the rain. His gaze fell on Deidara, who seemed barely rested from her chakra exhaustion. She had Izuna tucked in her arms, the babe burying his face into her shirt, which was sporting a new tear on the shoulder area. He tore her gaze away from her when Izumi clutched her shoulder to have Izuna returned to her. The Uchiha woman looked even more tired than Deidara, her Uchiha genes the only thing keeping her from aging too rapidly.

On their way to the medical bunker, Kisame spat and spluttered when a cluster of leaves and twigs blew into his face. Kagami cackled in wicked delight, ducking when Kisame threw a particularly large twig at them.

"Boys," Sakura said sharply, and Kagami and Kisame both turned to her. "Honestly, Sasori, I feel like you're the only mature one here in this bunch..." Her lips quirked upward in grim amusement. "Still, as long as we all don't die, I guess I shouldn't complain."

The rest of their trek was uneventful, the most dangerous thing they encountered being a famished snow leopard with particularly deadly claws. Mostly, they walked in silence, words only being exchanged to give a direction. The wind and water was on their backs as they walked, and lingered even when they reached the bunker.

Sakura's heart sank when she saw the grim looking state of it, and even Sasori frowned disapprovingly when he saw it, said frown deepening when Kakashi nonchalantly strolled ahead of them. The masked man turned back slightly, expecting them to follow. They did, proceeding with an exercised caution.

It smelled like rot, and Sasori resisted the urge to pinch his nose. Someone had died here, and by the smell of it, it was recent. That alone set off alarm bells in his head, and he warned the others, though he suspected they already knew. The bunker was run-down, but bigger than they had expected—there was even a set of stairs leading further underground.

There was a funky sort of stench coming down from there, and Sasori wrinkled his nose. It was a scent he had familiarized himself with, and one he hated to sniff. The upstairs level only stocked the most basic of supplies (Sakura cleanly swept everything she could into a storage scroll), and it was likely that it was downstairs that the more helpful medicine was kept.

They gathered at the top of the stairs, exchanging questioning glances in the darkness.

"Well," Kakashi said eventually, "Shall we?"

Kisame led the way, unsheathing Samehada, and Sasori brought up the back. Their most valuable member, Sakura, was smack bang in the middle, flanked by Kagami and Kakashi. The former's Sharingan eye was spinning in the darkness, and Sasori was glad that he didn't have to look at it. As they descended, it grew colder and colder, the air becoming uncomfortably damp.

The smell of death—yes, thought Sasori, death—was even stronger when he stepped off the last step, his shoe stepping on something too soft to be comfortable. By the stiff shoulders of his party members, he knew they were having a similar reaction.

"What," Sakura breathed out, "the hell." The others couldn't see it, but her face had grown incredibly pale, and she bit the inside of her cheek to keep herself from vomiting all over herself and making things messier than they already were.

"My god," Kakashi muttered, holding a hand up to his nose, trying to block out the nauseating stench of decayed flesh that was assaulting his nostrils. He squinted at Sakura in the darkness, wondering if she was going to cry, or worse. But to her credit, Sakura stepped over the bodies of Tsukigakure soldiers.

"We should get masks," Sasori said abruptly, Kagami's facial attire giving him an idea. "If we can find any." It probably wouldn't help much, but he was willing to take whatever he got.

"Good idea," mumbled Sakura, placing one cold hand on her forehead. "Let's do that. I don't think there's anything down here, but let's stick together. Just in case."

"One person should guard the entrance. Want me to?" offered Kisame. "I'm probably the most durable one here, so if I get attacked..."

"Can we not entertain that option?" Sakura grimaced. "It's a good idea, though... Hoshigaki-san—"

"Kisame."

"—Kisame, you go stand guard then. We... We'll search."

As everyone—minus Kisame, who had left with their only lamp in tow—wandered down the corridor, checking each room, Sasori stared long and hard at the bodies at the bottom of the stairs. They'd been there for weeks, by the smell of it, and he couldn't help but feel a morbid fascination toward the corpses. So this was the consequence of death. It wasn't like he hadn't known such a thing would occur, but having it unfold before him was...

Gutwrenching. He did not pity them—no, not in the least; after what they'd done to his home—but their deaths had not been pretty.

He breathed out, trying to calm his beating heart to a healthier pace. "What a world..." He popped three more lamps from the storage scroll he had brought along, giving two of them to Kakashi and Sakura. He needed the third one for himself, so Sasori could only pray that Kagami's Sharingan gave them more of an advantage when it came to searching in the dark.

"I don't think anyone's here," Sakura's voice sounded in the darkness a few minutes into the search. "We've checked every room right?" She sounded a lot more timid than usual. Afraid.

"Yep." Kakashi popped his head around the doorway of the room he had been occupying, nearly hitting Sasori. "Oh, sorry... I got a bit lost and thought this door led to a closet."

Sasori side-eyed him. "Hmph, whatever. Let's just hurry up so we can get the fuck out of here. This place..." He would never admit it to Kakashi, but it scared him more than any monster ever would.

Kakashi's light-hearted facade dropped for a moment, allowing Sasori to see what he was just as solemn as him. Then the silver-haired man disappeared back into his room, Sakura hurrying in right after him. She paused for a moment to regard Sasori. "Find anything useful?"

"Yeah, but you should probably check the room I searched to see if I missed out on anything important." He was sure he hadn't, as his knowledge of medicine wasn't too shabby thanks to his grandmother's tutoring, but it would be better for Sakura to check anyway. She was the trained medic here, not him.

She nodded, head twitching slightly when she caught sight of the dim, barely-there outline of the corpse pile behind Sasori's shoulder. The black-haired medic couldn't help but feel like one of those corpses would jump up and attack them at any given moment. "I will. You've been a great help." She touched his shoulder briefly in appreciation before joining Kakashi.

When it took longer than five minutes before Sakura got to inspect Sasori's already searched room, he began to grow antsy, and he knew he wasn't the only one. Kakashi kept shifting his weight from his left foot to his right, and the small pulse of chakra he felt probing at the back of his head told him that Kagami was turning their Sharingan on and off in anticipation.

It's not a coincidence that those bodies are here. It was recent, meaning that the bunker was in use before... that happened. Despite his gut screaming at him not to approach, Sasori crouched next to a half-rotten corpse and held the lamp at its face before hovering the light source along its crooked, broken body. They hadn't managed to find any masks after all, and Sasori's iron stomach and... prior experience was the only thing that saved him from making a complete mess of himself as the nauseating smell of decay burned the inside of his nostrils and contaminated the delicate creases and folds in his lungs. He held the back of his palm to his nose, recoiling slightly. The wounds... only one thing up in these mountains could produce these kinds of injuries. Memories of Sawako being cleaved in half swam to the forefront of his mind, and his world almost swayed for one moment before righting itself. It would also explain why the outside is ruined. If it was a big one, it wouldn't be able to get in without causing any structural damage. The thoughts processed in his head at a million miles per hour, and it was only the sound of footfall behind him that got him to slowly stand back up, as if he hadn't just gotten more up close and personal with a corpse than he would have liked.

"Making new friends?" Kagami taunted, but Sasori could sense no malice in their voice, so he simply ignored them. It was probably just Kagami's twisted way of trying to break the ice.

When they stepped over the corpses again to make for the stairs, Sakura let out a small whimper, tightening her grip around the storage scroll she held. It was dangerous to haphazardly store all the supplies into one single scroll, but the danger only lay in opening the container so that it wouldn't all spill out, which she was sure Sasori or Kakashi could help her with.

Sakura pulled away from them when they got outside, not even heading to where Kisame was waiting. Kagami glanced at Kakashi and Sasori. "Can one of you hug her or something?"

"Hatake will," Sasori volunteered his enemy's son immediately.

"I—tsk. Of course." Kakashi didn't sound annoyed at the prospect of being the medic's source of comfort, but rather vexed at the fact that Sasori had gotten a word in before him. Kagami raised an eyebrow behind their mask. Perhaps it was a man thing they were unaware about. Nevertheless, they made their amusement known with a small chuffing noise.

Sasori and Kagami slowed their pace a bit, not wanting to catch up to Kakashi and Sakura too quickly. The Hatake and Haruno exchanged a few words; at one point, Kakashi actually grabbed her face and told her sternly, "It's not your fault. You're the one who's saving lives, not destroying them."

She was crying now. "I couldn't even save Ino! T-there was a corpse by one of the cabinets and she looked just like... like her!"

Sasori let out a small sigh, even when a noticeable chill ran down his spine from the way her voice pitched in blatant distress. "She needs to keep her emotions in check..." It's too dangerous out here. We can't stop because she's having a breakdown. We have to keep going. Even as he said those words and thought those thoughts, there was a... rawness in her voice that he couldn't ignore, especially when he reminded himself of how much Ino had resembled Deidara. He couldn't just brush this off and declare it just another casualty in a world where it was eat or be eaten; he couldn't just wipe the blood off of his gloves or burn everything away. It was there: a huge black, festering stain that he couldn't look past.

Kakashi, however, was just as good as ignoring his emotions as Sasori, and he said something that made Sakura bravely wipe away her tears and say, "Sorry about that. Let's go back."

"Oh, I agree," Kagami said suddenly, when they and Sasori were still catching up to the other three members of their group. "She does, but isn't there something beautiful about that? Artful, even?"

Sasori barely spared them a glance. "There is nothing beautiful or artful about hell. Shut up, Kagami."

"You're missing the point. I know you're not dumb, so it's not ignorance. Perhaps... you are afraid to identify it's beauty?" By now, they had caught up, so all conversation ceased there.

There was a river between the medical bunker and the one they were staying in, and it had grown swollen with rain when they reached it for the second time that night. Morning. Night. They had no problems crossing it, though, simply jumping across the body of water. Kisame helped Sakura across.

When they got back, everybody was still loitering at the entrance for some strange reason, only they were noticeably panicked this time. The majority of the group were pressed against the bunker entrance or trying to scramble inside but were rooted to the ground with morbid fascination. A distance away from them, the civilian Mori was crouched on the ground, holding out his right arm in a pained, pleading manner. Near him, the wrinkled corpse of a small monster flopped on the grass.

"I'M NOT INFECTED!" Mori screamed, waving his bleeding right arm in the air. Crimson liquid arced through the air, and people recoiled when it threatened to splatter on their skin. Spittle flew from Mori's mouth as he tried to convince them of his innocence, or, rather, Shisui and Gai. "I'M NOT! SEE?! I'M FINE! I'M FINE!"

Gai seemed rather unsure about the whole thing, but Shisui had his tanto drawn and was pointing it at the civilian in a defensive fashion.

"Liar!" Hitoshi accused from the front of the crowd. "You're a damn liar, old man! I saw it claw you! Saw it claw you with my very own eyes!" He was almost hysterical, pointing at Mori wildly like a cornered animal. "Are you two insane?! We have to kill it before it kills us."

"What the hell is happening here?" Kakashi demanded as their medical expedition party rejoined the group. "Gai?"

"We had an attack," Gai reported gravely. "It was only one small monster, so it was dealt with quickly, but not before causing a panic. Hitoshi-san claimed that Mori-san was wounded in the commotion, but Mori-san denies it. He claims that the wound is from scraping his arm on the side of the entrance."

"No," Sasuke was saying now, glancing at Hitoshi. "I saw it, too. Not all of it, but enough. It was standing over Mori and managed to lash out one more time before Tenten thrust her staff through its heart."

"See?! He agrees!" Apparently, Hitoshi had abandoned his disdainful view on Sasuke for now, only caring about rallying support. "Look, I know I'm an asshole, but you have to believe me! I wouldn't lie about this kind of shit!"

"Where's Itachi? Shouldn't he be dealing with this?" Kagami mused before answering their own question. "Maa, he's probably resting... Missed everything, didn't he, the damn bastard..."

"Please," Mori pleaded, moaning. "Please, please, please..." He clawed at his cheeks, blood mixing with tears. "PLEASE! SAVE ME! MEDIC! MEDIC!"

Personally, Sasori thought it was best to just declare him infected, kill him, and deal with the backlash later. His behavior was frankly not natural, and—

Mori leaped at Shisui, salivating with madness. Most could only catch the flash of the metal when lightning split the sky, and were blinded in the moment that Shisui lopped Mori's head off, his blade slashing through flesh and bone with terrifying ease. Considering how blunt the tanto was, anyone with an ounce of sense knew that it had taken a mighty effort for him to decapitate a half-transformed Mori. But perhaps he wasn't as monstrous as they'd thought, because the detached body twitched once before going motionless. There was no effort made to stand up, and no vines started soaring at gathered crowd.

Still, Shisui stabbed Mori's heart for extra measure. The heart bled crimson, not seaweed black and green.

Someone—a child?—let out a startled, terrified sob before going silent.

"Okaa-chan?!" Itsuki looked up at his mother, horrified. "Why did they kill that poor uncle?!" But Itsuki's mother was too frozen in shock to answer, the sight of Mori's head face-down in the grass knocking all the wind out of her.

Daichi, standing close by to the younger boy, swallowed a lump in his throat, trembling. "Because he was infected... he was infected. He was gonna die anyway. They're... not humans anymore."

Itsuki started to wail, hammering his little fist on his mother's thigh when she refused to hug him, rubbing her hands up and down her own arms as she tried to calm herself down. He yelped when another woman—Deidara—scooped him into her arms. The child's fingers tangled painfully in the tips of her hair as he wriggled, but her face remained a mask of grimness.

"Why don't we head back inside?" Deidara suggested eventually, trying to diffuse the situation. "No point in standing out in the cold, un."


The bunker was undeniably small and not built for more than twenty people, so, in the morning, a few of the braver ones trickled outside in a steady stream, still skittish and tense. It had stopped raining by the time the sun was up, but with the sick people, they wouldn't be able to travel until they got at least a little better. The now-patients remained inside the bedroom in futons, asleep. Itachi had slept through the entire fiasco last night, and had awoken for only a few minutes before the sun woke up before falling back asleep. Their conditions had worsened during the night, and Itachi's coughing was surprisingly much more violent than the others'.

Sakura, with the help of Shizune and Chiyo, occupied the kitchen in their production of a cure. A swab had been taken from the patients, which they used as the foundation of their knowledge about the bacteria. Sakura had stolen a single microscope from the medical bunker, painstakingly holding a lamp close to the stage to try and illuminate the bacteria. Without proper, working equipment, it was the best they could do.

Deidara woke up to something poking her lower back. Languidly turning her head, she spotted young Itsuki curled in a tight ball, the crown of his head digging into the curve of her back. Right... his mother sleeps near me, so that makes sense... She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes as she sat up, briefly wondering if the bags beneath her eyes had cleared up any. She doubted it, considering the nightmare of a day that had been yesterday. Yesterday's chakra exhaustion had her entire body feeling heavy and achy, but she was feeling too restless to stay in bed all day. Even if Sakura said otherwise, a little exercise would do her good. She'd be fine as long as she didn't strain herself.

In a sea of futons, bodies, and blankets, there was movement, and little Shogo—Asagi's son—crawled over to where Itsuki was folded. He prodded his sleeping friend, a look of childish annoyance on his face. "Hey, lazybones, wake up!" When he realized that he had accidentally jostled Deidara, his demeanor shifted. "Sorry."

"Hm." Deidara stood, grabbing her Akatsuki cloak which was strewn on her futon. She used it as a blanket during the nights. Throwing it across her shoulders, she looked down at the boy. "Your grandmother's sick, isn't she?"

Shogo's eyes widened slightly. "Y-yeah, that's what okaa-chan said..."

Perhaps she would have offered a genuine sympathy for the child, but she couldn't find it within her. She had never been soft, but never this hard either—slowly, she was changing, and she knew. "Hope she gets better, yeah." The words were heavy on her tongue, and as bland as the canned goods they had discovered in the kitchens.

She left him then, and Shogo turned his attention back to waking up Itsuki, who was beginning to stir. There was no natural light penetrating this far into the bunker, meaning that it was harder than usual to wake up.

What time is it? Deidara wondered as she stepped into the kitchens. She didn't dwell on it, however, as she found Izumi, Chiyo, Sakura, and Shizune there. The latter three were occupying a section further from the entrance, trying to procure a panacea. Knowing that they were busy at work, Deidara ignored them, focusing on Izumi instead.

"Deidara!" Izumi startled. "I was just making some herbal tea for Itachi and the others." She tried to smile, and Deidara faltered when she saw crow's feet appear on the corners of her eyes. "You'd be surprised about the number of winter herbs growing up here..."

She looks... even worse than me. Deidara pulled some of her hair up in a ponytail. "Did you sleep last night, Izumi?"

"No, and I didn't try to either. I wouldn't have been able to. I could hear him coughing from across the room..." The ill ones had been moved to a more isolated corner of the room in order to try to minimize infection. Izumi glared at the wall, the lines beneath her eyes becoming more pronounced.

Deidara sat down on the opposite outer side of the kitchen counter. The tea was still brewing. "Where's Izuna, hm?"

"With Asagi. She feels indebted to our family, and I normally wouldn't do this kind of thing, but—"

"I get it, yeah," Deidara interrupted her rant, holding up a hand. She smiled wearily at Izumi. "To be brutally honest, Izuna was born at the worst possible time. Nobody blames you if you have to hand him off to someone else from time to time. Just... make sure not to stretch yourself too much, hm?"

"I... Yes, thank you."

A comfortable silence stretched between them, the only noise being the mutterings of the doctors on the other side of the room. Once the tea finished brewing, Izumi went over to the medics to get some kind of confirmation before hurrying into the room.

The entire kitchen smelled like herbs to Deidara, and it was beginning to get suffocating. After a quick drink of water, she left the premises, narrowing her eyes as she emerged from the entrance. It was yet another gray day today.

At least it isn't raining, she thought sardonically. As she took her first step outside, the grass crunched beneath the sole of her boot, and she looked down. The grass was crisp and dewy from last night's rain. Subconsciously, she searched for any sign of last night's incident, but could find none. The storm had washed Mori's blood away. The body had been cleaned up after everyone went in. Probably by Shisui.

Taking in a deep breath, she lifted her arms up and arched her back in a bone-popping stretch, the sleeves of her cloak falling down her arms and revealing still-healing bruises that hadn't been severe enough to warrant immediate medical attention.

"Hey, look who's awake!" Shisui, crouched opposite Gai, straightened and waved to her. "Morning, sunshine."

"Morning, you guys. What are you doing...?" She made her way to them, head tilted slightly. "Sparring?" Deidara perked up, looking more alive than she had been in the past few days.

"Correct!" Gai boomed. "In times like this, it is important for us to hone our skills to deadly precision." Sometimes, it was hard for Deidara to remember that Gai could was as much of a warrior as her or Sasori. With his borderline goofy behavior (who was she kidding—he was definitely goofy), Gai was often overlooked. "You should join us, Deidara—afterward, we can do a thousand push-ups using only the tips of our fingers. And if cannot do those one thousand push-ups—"

"Whoa, there," Shisui cut in, sweatdropping. "I appreciate the enthusiasm, Gai, but we're training, not looking for ways to kill ourselves." With that, he jabbed at Deidara, who quickly dodged to the side. A three-way half-hearted battle was initiated then, and some of the other people outside started paying attention.

Hanabi and Hinata were sitting in the grass with Tenten, having some small talk when they saw Shikamaru and Choji walking past, close knit as ever. "Taijutsu battle," Choji said shortly, a hint of excitement in his voice.

"Oh, really?" Hinata straightened at that, curiosity piqued. "W-we should go watch—I haven't seen one in a long time... D-do you girls mind?"

Tenten and Hanabi shook their heads, and the three of them followed Shikamaru and Choji to the hub of excitement. Sasuke, who was sitting on a nearby rock and sharpening his sword, glanced toward where the fighters were dancing around each other. Little Chihiro trotted out of the bunker, summoned by the buzz.

"A Big 4 battle," Tenten said aloud before she could help herself. "Everyone back home would have killed just to see one..." Sadness eased into the creases of her heart. The only one missing is Obito...

"Is it really a Big 4 battle with only three people?" Hanabi said, sounding surprisingly bitter.

No one had an answer to her question, not even Shikamaru.

It was then Tenten felt a tug on her sleeve, and she looked down to see Chihiro gazing up at her. Her heart melted. "Oh, Chihiro..." She remembered hugging the girl tightly when they had reunited, but with all the excitement going on, they hadn't much talked. "What is it?"

"You should join in," Chihiro told her, and Tenten felt her heart jump.

"Wh-what?"

"It's not really Big 4 without a fourth person."

"Chihiro, you don't understand. I can't just intrude like that. That... It wouldn't be right, and—"

"Are you worried about disrespecting my husband's memory?" Tenten almost jumped into the air at the sound of Rin's voice behind the row of teenagers (and pre-teens, too). The older woman was holding the hands of both of her children, though Daichi broke off and stood next to Shikamaru to get a better look of the spar.

"R-Rin-sama—!" Tenten stammered, blushing when she realized how much like Hinata she sounded. Get a grip!

Rin looked faintly amused. "I'm not your boss anymore, Tenten. Just Rin is fine. Or if you really want to, Rin-san."

Hikari lifted one hand to wave at her mother's former employee. "Hi, Tenten-san," she murmured sleepily.

Tenten smiled, softening. "Hey, Hii-chan."

"Obito wouldn't mind," Rin said lightly, palming Tenten's shoulder. "I don't either. We never really were ones to stick too much to tradition."

Tenten's gaze shifted downward. "Are... Are you sure?"

Rin nodded. "Go get your staff if you want."

Remembering that she had left it in the grassy spot where she had been sitting before, Tenten hastily went to get it, only to bump into Sasuke, who had removed himself from his rock. He was holding her staff in one hand.

"Here," the Uchiha said, handing it to her. "You shouldn't leave your weapons lying around like that." He sounded decidedly disinterested and not the least malicious, but Tenten's ears burned anyway.

"Thanks," she muttered, a little more snippishly than she meant to. Swiftly, she tried to amend, "You're not that bad."

Deidara was in for a surprise when she found that she had to dodge Shisui's tanto and Tenten's staff. "What—when did you get here, hm?!"

"Aw, don't complain, Deidara~!" Shisui sing-songed, grinning wildly when her expression darkened with promised vengeance. "The more the merrier, right?"

Tenten laughed apologetically. "Hope you don't mind."

"Oh, I do mind—I mind the fact that I don't have a weapon while you two do, un!"

Gai shot out his arm and nearly grabbed the bun-haired girl's staff then, forcing Tenten to back away and regather her bearings. "No use in mourning that now, Deidara!" Gai proclaimed. "Do not forget that I too lack a weapon!"

The battle ended just as a hunting party that Deidara hadn't known got sent out returned. She eased up when she saw that Sasori was in the front, leading Naruto, Karin, and Rock Lee. The bespectacled redhead seemed to be as jumpy as ever, her eyes flicking to Naruto when his elbow got too close to her shoulder. She didn't know when Yukari had let go of her dead sister's bow and arrows, because the last time Deidara had even registered her was when she had broken down after the bridge attack, but Sasori possessed them now, the quiver loosely strapped around his person. Arrows always were more effective for covering long distances than kunai and other blades. In one hand, Sasori held the bow; the other hand was bloody, and he clutched the ears of a dead rabbit. They'd found a nest, apparently, as both Naruto and Lee had rabbits of similar size to the red-haired man. Karin was empty-handed, and Deidara guessed that she had only tagged along because of her sensory abilities.

There were gasps of excitement as breakfast was finally noticed. The last fresh food they'd eaten was the venison that Shikaku had cooked up. Faces became a little more hopeful, and bodies stood a little bit taller.

"Don't just stand there," Sasori groused, eyebrow twitching in annoyance as he watched them salivate. "We can't cook these without a fire, you brats, so start hauling ass a little quicker." That sent them into a flurry of motion, and Sasori turned to Shisui. "Help me gut the rabbits. And Gai..." His brown gaze flicked over to where Rock Lee was having a discussion with Naruto about the size of their catches. "I think you should start paying a bit of attention to that one."

Deidara watched, amused, as Gai adhered to his orders and approached Lee with a determined curiosity. Gai's mini-me was instantly delighted. Danna's snapping out orders like a drill sergeant... She wasn't exempt, however, as he stalked right up to her and stared at her, deadpanning.

"Why aren't you in bed, brat?"

"Ehh? I'm feeling fine now, hm, so no need to worry. I'm not going to keel over anytime soon."

"Really?" Sasori wasn't convinced. "Because I remember succumbing to chakra exhaustion once and it took a week for me to fully recover, even with one of Suna's best healers at my bedside."

She shrugged, sticking out all three of her tongues at him in a decidedly smug manner. "Fast healing...?"

He exhaled sharply, glaring at her. "Whatever happens next isn't my problem, then..." The way he turned away from her was almost childish, and Deidara had to muffle a snort behind her palm. "At least have Shizune or Sakura check you over." Then he was sitting with Shisui, a blade drawn and ready to get his hands bloody with rabbit.

It touched her, honestly, that concern of his. And it wasn't like it was unwarranted either—how she had recovered so quickly was still a mystery to Deidara. She had vague memories of someone bending over her sleeping form during the night, but the face was too fuzzy to put a name to. He's right, I should probably get checked over. She took one last moment to observe all the flurry before heading back inside. Like the lack of natural light had triggered something in her, her shoulders sagged, her exhaustion finally catching up to her. She would have fallen in the corridor had Chiyo not popped her head out of the kitchen doorway and seen her swaying on her feet. The old woman was by her side almost instantly.

"By the stars!" Chiyo exclaimed. "Are you some kind of idiot, girl?" Deidara winced at the sharpness of her voice. "That tea I fed you last night wasn't supposed to be a bypass for you to abuse yourself like this!"

"It was... only a bit of exercise. I needed it, hm." Righting herself, Deidara clutched her head. So that's the story behind it. She recalled something about Chiyo keeping medical textbooks in her home, and Sasori mentioning something about herbal teas in a dark and dirty street in Akatsuki. It was her who helped me. Chiyo led her to the shared bedroom, where the isolated patients were all lined up in the furthest corner of the room, tucked in their futons. Izumi was crouched over Itachi, eyes at half-mast.

"Exercise? Pah! And you!" Chiyo snapped at Izumi, who startled. "Why are you still here? Didn't I tell you to get some fresh air? We've finally found a cure adequate enough for killing this strain but it's limited. No use in getting yourself sick, fussing over him." Her eyes were stern as she beheld Izumi, who twitched slightly under her burning gaze. "Well?"

Izumi let out a resigned sigh. "Where did Asagi go? I left Izuna with her."

"She's entertaining him outside, probably close to the entrance," said Chiyo. Deidara recalled seeing the woman sitting down on a rock with Izuna on her lap.

When Izumi was gone, Chiyo checked her over, her hands glowing mint green. "As I suspected," the old woman muttered. "Good lord, my grandson sure knows how to pick them..."

It's not really like that. The words were on the tip of Deidara's tongue, but she didn't bother correcting her. Yes, they'd gotten closer over the month, and yes, she had entertained the idea more than once, but...

Chiyo's voice drew her from her musings. "Back to bed you go. You're going to be resting up for at least another week."

"A week?! We can't just stay here for a week because of me—"

"It's not just you." Itachi had woken and sat up just in time to hear the last bit of their conversation. He looked to his left and right, and Deidara followed his gaze, looking at all the sick people with no small amount of guilt. Shit, they were battling a potentially fatal disease, and here she was, complaining about chakra exhaustion. Grudgingly, she calmed herself, lying back on her futon.

"Ah, the Uchiha has finally awoken," Chiyo said, her dry humor present as ever. "You missed quite the drama last night."

"You really were out of it, hm." Deidara shifted her head to look at him. He blinked back at her. "There was an attack. Mori died."

Itachi's eyes dropped to the floor. He wondered if he should be grateful that they had only suffered one casualty, or embittered because they had suffered one casualty.

A coughing gained their attention. Udon continued to hack away before his coughing ceased, and he rolled in his bedding. Just then, Sakura and Shizune arrived with the medicine, and began to dose everyone ill with the appropriate amount.

Itsuki blearily bleated when Shizune tried to feed him the medicine. "Where's okaa-chan? I want my okaa-chan..."

"Shh." Shizune stroked his hair. "She'll be back soon." Back soon from gossiping with Masami outside. I hate that woman. "Drink up, and you'll feel all better."

"O-okay..."

"Will they really be alright?" Deidara asked Chiyo when the patients had fallen back to a delirious sleep, including Itachi.

"Who am I to know?" was the old woman's reply. "I'm not God."


Sasori was used to blood. He was used to spilling it, and having it spilled from him. He was used to washing it from his hands with soap that made his skin rough, and having it dry on the front of his garment when things got especially messy. But coming from Suna, where rainfall was rare, he was not used to having blood swept away from his body by a sudden downpour.

It was especially annoying, because almost everyone was outside for breakfast.

"Everybody back inside!" Kakashi took the reins with Gai, and everybody fled back inside before they could get soaked.

Sasori was one of the last ones in, and he took one final look at the treeline before retreating.

A pair of white eyes stared back. Then they disappeared, fading into black.

He felt his skin crawl. Monster.


Daichi blinked down at the baby he was carrying in his arms. Izuna stared right back at him with wide eyes, his thumb in his mouth. He was not sucking it, however, merely holding the digit between his lips in what seemed to be contemplation. With how much he looked like his father in general, it was almost as if he was the second coming of Itachi. When Izuna reached up one chubby hand and grabbed Daichi's curls, he winced, laughing uncomfortably.

He remembered how much he had worshiped Itachi's prowess before the war, and wondered if this was how Itachi felt to have a younger boy focusing all of his attention on him.

It was a cold environment up here in the mountains, and Daichi made sure to hold Izuna very close to his chest, so that the baby wouldn't freeze.

Izuna yanked Daichi's hair harder, forcing the boy to tilt his head downward.

"Can I hold him next?" Hikari demanded, tugging on her brother's sleeve. When he was too busy trying to gently pry Izuna's hand from his hair, Hikari twisted her legs around his leg and wrapped her arms around his torso. "Aniki?"

"U-um, hold on, imouto—"

Oh, how Izumi and Rin both wished they could take a picture of their children. Days had passed since they had arrived, waiting for the ill people (and Deidara) to recover enough to travel. Itachi, Udon, and Itsuki seemed to be doing well now, but Yukari and Shogo's grandmother were still iffy. Nevertheless, it'd been nearly a week, and it was time to continue whether everyone was completely able to or not.

"That's enough, you two," Rin admonished when Hikari's tugging nearly caused Daichi to drop Izuna. "Why don't you go play with Chihiro instead? She's looking a little lonely without Kisame."

"The knife girl?" Hikari asked.

"Kunai," corrected Izumi. "She's getting pretty good at using them, too. Why don't you ask her to teach you? It's always good to know how to defend yourself, especially... out here." Izumi herself had basic training with weapons and taijutsu, and Rin studied in a dojo before meeting Obito.

Daichi handed Izuna back to his mother, took Hikari's hand, and led her to where Chihiro was sitting in the room, looking a little lost. At the same time, Tenten approached, and they all ended up going outside with the supervision of Gai, who encouraged all sorts of training. By his side was Lee, who was now basically attached to the man after he showed him some attention. Anyone with a brain between their ears and a functioning pair of eyes could tell that Gai genuinely liked the boy, and they grew closer every passing day.

"Where is Kisame?" Rin wondered after a little while, letting Izuna play with her pointer finger.

"With Sakura," Izumi informed her. "Last time I talked to her, she said she was trying to make something to reverse the effects of monsterization."

She was—and she was using Kisame's odd healing factor and Mori's body as a foundation for her findings. There was an excited shriek from the kitchen, and they knew that she had made great progress.

The next day, they all prepared to leave the bunker, packing up everything. From all the weapons lying around, they all figured that Tenten's weapon training had really taken off with some of the younger ones. Naruto could now wield that three-pronged kunai of his more effectively than ever, and Konohamaru, Moegi, and Daichi had the basics of kunai throwing down. Shikamaru and Choji had both received basic taijutsu training from their fathers, and had sparred frequently with Tenten.

"There's a cave system over here," Shikaku pointed to the map, Kakashi, Gai, Itachi, and Sasori all looking over his shoulder, "that we can travel through. It'd be a better option than travelling out in the rain, where more of us could get sick, and it's high enough to avoid flooding."

"It's also an enclosed space," Sasori noted, frowning. "With limited sight."

Shikaku grimaced. "Yes—which is why I have to consult with all of you. Is the risk worth it?" His genius mind was telling him that it was, mostly because he had traveled through these caverns himself once, as a very young boy toward the end of the Great Migration, and it had been almost generously spacious. If they had to fight any monsters, they would still be able to do so. And the prospect of anymore monsters appearing was slim, even with Sasori reporting that he had spotted another one a few days ago, considering that their base camp was now cut off, and a majority of their forces had been wiped out. The ones that they had seen since then were very likely stragglers that had crossed prior to the bridge incident.

There was debate, but in the end, it was decided that they would travel through the caves. The cold and wind would only make them sick—fatally so for some of them.

That was their first mistake.

Chapter Text

Rebirth, huh? In a different world, perhaps I would be able to further my understanding of it, though my grasp of it is adequate enough. Maybe I would name a technique after it. Creation Rebirth. It would be the pinnacle of medical jutsu. Humans are hairless, overgrown apes, but for all of our deficiencies and limitations, our higher-order thinking more than makes up for it, and the idea of rebirth—of a brand new start, of erasing the past and building the future—appeals to me. I think that's why I wanted to spare him that day. The man they called a monster.

— Excerpt from 'The Legendary Hokages and Other Important Political Figures of Konohagakure, Fifth Edition': Lady Senju Tsunade's interview


"Goodness, Arisa-san, who might this be?" an old woman inched her neck downward and forward to try and further glimpse the red-haired child hiding behind his mother's legs.

Arisa smiled at the elderly lady, who had been her neighbor for more than five years. The old thing was rather fond of gossip and cheating her relatives at mahjong, but Arisa was fond of her.

"Why haven't I seen him before?" demanded the woman. "We've known each other for so longit's unlike you to keep such a thing from me. Why, I didn't even know that you have a child! Now how did that happen?"

"You were holidaying with your brother on the other side of Sunagakure, Rio-san. You were gone for almost the whole year," Arisa patiently explained, absently palming her child's hair and ruffling it affectionately. The little boy squeezed his eyes shut, a little blush appearing on his round face.

"Hm, I see, I see. Well, little one, care to tell me your name?"

Under his mother's encouragement, the little boy allowed his elderly neighbor to finally see him properly. "Sasori." His voice trembled a bit, but he was fighting hard to wrestle it to neutrality.

Rio was kind to him, and soon, Arisa sent her son off to play in the backyard while she and Rio discussed everyday matters. The conversation was looking to wrap up peacefully when Rio made a statement that had Arisa swerving hard.

"You know," the wily old woman said, "Chiyo told me over mahjong last week that several of the royal male concubines were murdered by a jealous acolyte, who committed suicide immediately after his killing spree. The Empress and Emperor are both very displeased, and are sending guards and messengers into the cities to scout for more. To be frank, your son's beauty is also his curse. The guards will undoubtedly take him away for a lifetime of servitude as a palace whore."

Almost frantically, Arisa turned her entire body toward the house, relieved to find that Sasori had migrated to the front yard to play with his wooden toy puppets, which were very expensive gifts from his grandmother, Chiyo.

"What do you suggest I do?" Arisa inquired fretfully, trying to wipe down her sweaty hands on her apron.

Rio eyed the street discreetly. "Chiyo will take him away." Clearly, she had already known about Sasori before today.

"Where?"

"To the Royal Puppet Corps, where she is a trusted commander and healer."

Arisa froze. Such a life promised assassinations and bloodshed. How could she ever condemn her son to such a life?

"Would a life of being someone's personal puppet be any better?" Rio reminded her sharply.

She must have said it out loud. Arisa swallowed, tucking her hands into her apron pocket, where the pentadactyl limbs continued to perspire rapidly. "I... I'll have to talk to my husband. He'll be back next week"

"No time. The guards are coming to this part of the city in two days. Take your pick, Arisaassassin or whore? At least as the former, he will have guidance from a trusted family member. The latter promises a cruel madam." Rio pulled at the collar of her garment, revealing a small tattoo on her shoulder, sadness clouding her eyes as she did so. "I'm past my expiry date. I live only to cheat my own flesh and blood from parting from their money. I have lost an entire lifetimeand he will, too, if you allow this... atrocity to happen."

Rio knew that Arisa had made her decision when she burst into tears, muttering something unintelligible about Chiyo looking out for the boy. In the front yard, Sasori had sat up straight, a curious gleam in his normally droopy brown eyes.

Arisa spent the rest of the day with her child, cooking with him and perhaps subtly teaching him the art of slipping poison into food at the same time. When he went to bed, stuffed full from chicken and ginger rice, she wept in her own room, yearning for the presence of her husband more than ever.

The next night, Sasori was whisked away to the secretive Puppet Corps, where he would learn how to quarter men more than twice his adult size with chakra scalpels, and how to control multiple killing machines at once with only his fingers. If the royal family ever ventured thereand they rarely didthey would see nothing but what they wanted to see.

So Sasori trained and faded into the dark, and only returned to the living world when his expertise was requested by the Royal Family, who were to appoint a new Royal Assassin.

"Here. Your first victim as my personal tool. Make sure the world knows who you are, and why you should be feared."

"Hai,  Tennō Heika."


The cave was dark. The lamps they possessed were shared around, each person with a light source spreading out so that the light could touch as many people as possible.

"Watch your step," Sakura warned, grabbing Udon's arm with her free hand (the other held a lamp) and guiding him around the dip in the floor that would have surely caused him to twist his ankle and fall.

Udon sniffled. "Thanks, Sakura-san. Sorry about that."

"Slowpoke-Udon!" Konohamaru berated to try and lift the mood. His bespectacled friend looked absolutely miserable, and aside from the sickness, it was not difficult to tell why. They had seen more death than most ever did in their lifetime, and morale could only ever go up from here. Moegi gave him a disapproving glance, but Konohamaru ignored her.

"I said sorry!"

"You guys," Moegi growled, planting her fist softly down on both of their heads. "Stop fooling around. And don't be so loud."

"Huh?" Konohamaru was confused. "Why's that?" Then realization struck him and he lowered his chin, fearful. "Is... Is it 'cause of the monsters? I-I thought they were none left..."

Naruto, overhearing the conversation, sidled up next to the Sarutobi boy, fiddling with his three-pronged kunai. "You know how your voice echoes in here? It might cause a rockfall or somethin'."

"Really? Wow, you sure know a lot, Naruto."

"Isn't that avalanches?" Sakura muttered to herself, and even then she was skeptical. If she ever made it to Konohagakure, she would be sure to do some research on the matter. It would be a nice distraction.

At the front of the group, Hyuuga Hanabi had her Byakugan activated, and was beside Itachi, who was nodding slightly to whatever she was saying. She lifted her arm up, pointing ahead of them. Then Itachi lifted his hand up, and almost everyone halted at once. Naruto bumped into Sasuke's back, and the Uchiha shot him an irate glance.

"Fork in the road," Itachi announced, just loud enough for the people in the back to hear. "Shikaku?"

"Left," Shikaku said after some consideration. "If we were to go backwards, it'd be the left path."

"Are we seriously trusting this man?" Masami whispered to Asagi. "His memory could be shoddy for all we know!"

Asagi agreed quietly, but was inwardly unsure. Nara Shikaku was a genius, and she liked to think that someone with his brain would be able to pull up old memories from the past crystal clear. Her mother coughed and lurched then, and Asagi supported her, rubbing circles on her back.

Shogo looked up at his grandmother worriedly. "Are you okay, obaa-chan? Do you want some more cough medicine? I-I can get some from the medics!" He dashed toward Shizune, who was standing next to a lamp-holding Kisame, but Asagi pulled him back at the behest of her mother.

"Thank you, little one, but I'm already much better," the old woman reassured. Shogo, for all his child-muddled naivety, didn't look entirely convinced, but he left the matter alone anyway, deciding that the next-best thing to do was to stick himself to his grandmother's side. Eventually, though, his grandmother needed some space, and Shoog was forced to stay a few steps away from her. He looked to Itsuki for company, but the tubby boy—he had lost a lot of weight, actually, but he still held some chub around his frame—was busy trying to get the attention of his mother, who was walking with Karin, thinking that she would be the first to know if a monster approached, and therefore the safest.

So Shogo turned to the only other boy around his age in the group: eight-year-old Daichi. He had his Sharingan turned on, two tomoe in his left eye; one tomoe in the other. He was looking around warily, and he kept it on until Hikari said that looking at the redness was hurting her eyes. Daichi noticed Shogo staring at him, and narrowed his eyes slightly. "Yes?"

Shogo wasn't very sure how to talk to the older boy. He seemed so much bigger—so much more intimidating and world-weary than an eight-year-old was supposed to be. There'd been other eight-year-olds in his old neighborhood, and none of them seemed nearly as intense as him. Then again, he had never seen any eight-year-old Uchiha children before.

Luckily, Hikari saved him from having to answer to the slightly scary boy. "Aniki, be nicer." She broke away from her mother's side—Rin looked vaguely amused, and perhaps a little sad, too, but Shogo couldn't really tell—and walked over to Shogo. She held his hand, holding their entwined fingers up for Daichi to see. "Like this, see?"

Daichi frowned, but his demeanor was slowly melting thanks to Hikari. "Yeah," he said gruffly. "But I'm not holding this hand. Hn."

"Did you just hn?" Deidara's incredulous voice came from behind them. "Not even Obito hn'ed without doing it ironically, hm."

"Actually, he did it plenty of times," Rin amended, and Deidara blinked at her, surprised. "When he was moody, or when a business choice didn't go right." She smiled softly, her eyes creasing a little at the corners. She was in her early thirties, Deidara was suddenly reminded, seeing those early signs of crow's feet. The age difference between them had never stopped them from being friends, but Deidara had never really acknowledged it like this. And come to think of it, wasn't her Danna well into his thirties as well?

"Huh. Glad he never did it around me, un, otherwise I would have—"

Sensing she was about to swear, Sasuke kicked the back of her ankle. She turned, shocked.

"The hell, bastard?"

"Don't swear in front of my cousin."

Deidara stared at him in outrage and disbelief. This guy...! "After everything you did... After everything you put him through—!"

"Stop it, please!" Rin admonished, clenching her jaw. "This isn't the time or place. Sasuke, just..." She rubbed her temple, brows furrowed. "Stop talking, please. Stop talking."

Daichi had been silent throughout the whole exchange. He didn't break it, simply walking ahead. Hikari, shooting Shogo an apologetic look, untangled their fingers and trotted after her brother loyally. Rin picked up the pace as well to catch up to her children, leaving Sasuke and Deidara to each other.

"Don't ever talk to him again," Deidara seethed. "He doesn't need someone like you in his life." Roughly, she shoved past him, wanting to be with just about anyone else but that piece of shit. Forget betraying the country—she didn't care about that too much in comparison; she wasn't of Ame origin—but betraying his friends and family? People who doubled as her friends and family? And Daichi—he had trusted Sasuke and looked up to him, throwing away his hero-worship of Itachi for him and spending almost all of his free time with him. They'd bonded during their training sessions, and Sasuke's betrayal had cut him deeper than the stupid emo-duck-haired-brat could ever possibly imagine—

She would have walked straight into Sasori had he not sensed her coming and moved out of the way in time. Deidara glared at him as if she had walked into him and it had been his fault. Then she turned her head away, facing the front and huffily crossing her arms. If a growl sounded from the back of her throat, both of them ignored it.

They walked side by side, enjoying each other's company without the need for words. If they wanted to converse (or, more accurately, if Deidara wanted to vent), they would wait until they weren't completed surrounded by others.

Everyone else seemed to share the general idea; if any of them talked, it was with low voices, as if they didn't want to disturb whatever entity resided in the earth. Their footsteps were muffled as well—those trained properly walked almost perfectly silently, their feet almost gliding against the smooth stone floor, but even the civilian members of the group had grown used to walking on the balls of their feet or going down heel first to avoid making as much noise as possible. It was a new habit instilled by their close and ever whispering friend, fear—a powerful motivator that could bring even entire countries to their knees.

They did not like fear. Because fear could just as easily guarantee their deaths as well as their survivals.

Drip.

Drip.

Udon sneezed just as a drop of water landed on Moegi's nose, causing the girl to blink and scrunch up her face. She flicked the water droplet away, it being a mere annoyance to her.

Then she glanced upward. Her eyes went wide. "Whoa..."

"What is it, Moegi-chan?" Sakura tilted her head up, lifting the lamp with her. But she soon found that she didn't need to do such a thing. In their path, bio-luminescent fungi started to grow in bunches along the cave walls, climbing up until they was wedged between stalactites that dripped with water from the recent rain. The glow reflected off the dew collecting on the stalactite tips, allowing the light to be reflected throughout the cave ceiling at random angles.

"Beautiful," Rin whispered in awe, also looking skyward. She smiled gently, only one corner of her lips quirking upward.

"It really is," Asagi's mother concurred, her cough having disappeared for the meantime. "I'm glad I lived long enough to see this. I'm so glad."

"Kagami?" Shisui had noticed a pulse of chakra coming from the gender-ambiguous Uchiha. Sharingan?

"Just making some memories. Nice ones. I really need them." Kagami said in that usual drawl of theirs. They turned to him, Sharingan spinning contentedly. "You should, too, Shisui."

"You Uchihas," Kakashi said to Itachi, light jest in his tone. "Using your Sharingans as photographs."

The gray, suffocating cloud around the group morale lifted ever so slightly, many of them practically plunging for the opportunity to simply forget about reality for a little well, and entertain and awe themselves with one of nature's most magnificent sights—a beauty that most of them would only ever see once in their lifetime.

Deidara wondered how the light would look if she detonated one of her bombs there. It'd probably scatter all around the place in a frenzy, but that was the beauty of it. Trying to be everywhere all at once because such a state was fleeting. She noticed that her Danna seemed to be quite engrossed with the mushrooms as well, more than she had expected him to be. He looked so curious, so innocent and untouched that she just had to smile, her ire with Sasuke slowly seeping away from her heart. He's from Suna. He's probably never seen anything like this before.

Izuna had awoken from his nap—thankfully, the child was asleep most of the time—and was slowly gaining awareness, sluggishly turning his head left and right. His eyes were big, but they seemed bigger than ever, as if he was trying to absorb as much as possible. Infantile memory loss would likely ensure that he wouldn't remember any of this, though—all the better, truly, for these beautiful memories came with most monstrous ones. Nevertheless, Izumi adjusted her hold on him so that he would get a better view of the mushroom bloom. A drop of water fell from a stalactite and landed on Izuna's cheek, nearly getting his nose. The baby flinched, looking adorably and utterly confused as to what had just happened to him. Izumi laughed, kissing his forehead and brushing the cold liquid away with the pad of her thumb. She didn't realize that some of the travelers were giving her incredulous looks, nor did she notice that Itachi had looked back and was looking at them with the most loving expression that an Uchiha could ever produce.

Deidara had learned to read his eyes a while ago. He never said much, not that she minded, but his eyes conveyed more than words ever could. It was said that the Uchiha could love very intensely, capable of loving, and considering that most Uchiha seemed to have constant sticks up their behinds, she had never quite believed the myth.

Itachi completed erased any doubts she had in a split second.

All around her, people marveled, some quietly, others loudly (but not too loudly). It was exhilarating for her—how such a fleeting moment of wonder and intrigue could exist completely knocked the breath out of her, and she could not speak for many moments, not even when Gai addressed her, pointing to a mushroom that was shaped like Konoha's symbol.

"It's amazing, isn't it? How long has this been here? An eternity?" Sasori had finally spoken, breaking the string of silence between them. Deidara turned to him, not entirely sure how to respond. She surprised both of them when she expressed something other than repulsion or dubiousness toward the idea of posterity.

"Maybe," she stated, a little awe in her tone as she tucked her canary's wing behind her ear to allow herself a full view of the glowing fungi. "I guess we'll never know, hm?"

Shikaku answered the question, turning around. "I have some vague memories of this particular tunnel, haha. It's a lot brighter than I remember, but I can tell you that they've been here since the end of the Great Migration at the very least."

Sasori made a noncommittal sound, tilting his head heavenward to appreciate the glowing fungi again. It was such a marvelous, stunning thing—a culmination of nature's finest, one that could have only been produced by the toils of time. It moved him, and it showed in the way he admired it, as if he were gazing at the finest diamonds in the world.

Deidara had learned to read his eyes, too, even more so than Itachi's, and a passing moment of contentedness washed over her, leaving her feeling light. At that very moment, it was like he had shed his chains and taken flight; he looked so—so—

Artless.

She thought she would have died without her art.

He caught her staring, but she didn't look away—had no reason to, especially when he didn't frown, a guileless expression on his face.

"Come on," Shikaku said in the end, addressing all of them. "We can't stay here, even if we want to. Our supplies will last us another two, three weeks at the most, so let's make the most of it."

"Yeah, let's!" Caught up in her own exhilaration, Anko cheered, managing to sound vicious and inspiring at the same time. "To Konoha we go—those rich bastards won't even know what hit them!" She got a few chuckles, and the gray cloud of oppression had almost completely dispersed.

There wasn't any battle cry caterwauled before they continued, but they needed none. They pushed forward, determined. The last two, three months had been absolute hell for all of them, and it was time to finally walk up the staircase the heaven—

Karin jumped when she felt something cold brush against her neck, breathing a sigh of relief when she realized it was only a slime of some sort, having been backed into the wall by the crowd. She rubbed the back of her neck, shivering from the cold draft that blew through the cave.

Why did it suddenly get so cold? It almost feels like...

Something's wrong.


Heavy breaths. Lolling tongues that stretched to the floor and piled in a disgusting twirl of black snakes.

They gathered around it, waiting to move off, their necks twitching impatiently from time to time. Dumb creatures. It was better than them all. It was growing faster, stronger, and more sentient by each passing hour, while they remained in their mindless states.

It paused, looking at a scar on its hand that had never healed for some reason. "Ha... Hanabi." A long-haired child, slashing at his hand—

One of its comrades twisted its neck in confusion. "Mrrgh? Haaaanaaabeeee, comrade?"

"Nooo..." It clutched his head, as if it were having a battle with its mind. "No, don't touchHyuuga. Kill. Eat. We will feast on the bodies of the worthless, and assimilate the useful. Zetsu commands it."

"Zetsu." Its comrades murmured the name in reverence. "Zetsu, Zetsu."

Don't march. Don't march. Don't

"March."

They bayed like mad animals, and took off at top speed toward the Crystal Caves of Mount Fire. He had learned so in his studies—

"Worthless!"

"Gouge out his eyes!"

"He doesn't deserve the name of"

Dirty, dripping jaws snapped, and it broke out of its reverie.


Karin suddenly dropped to her knees, screaming as a dark presence invaded the sensitive parts of her brain. It was like learning a new language for her—a language of teeth, corners, and angles

"Oh my god!" Masami shrieked. "You scared the life out of me—!"

Karin's head snapped up and she stared straight at Masami, but it was like she wasn't even looking at her. Masami looked vaguely disturbed, and stepped away from her, but the red-haired teenager wasn't even seeing her anymore.

Sasuke, the closest to her, grabbed her arm and hauled her up roughly. "Are they coming?"

A weak nod.

"Turn on your Byakugan!" Sasuke suddenly snapped at Hinata, who was travelling near the back of the group.

"Wh-What—"

"Do it, Hinata," Kakashi said firmly, knowing that had little time to waste. "Tell us how far away they are, if you can see them. Your range is longer than Hanabi's."

Hinata looked terrified, but she pushed down her fear and cried out, "Byakygan!" Veins appeared around her eyes, and she reluctantly walked a few steps back so that her range of vision was longer.

Without really realizing it, the people began to huddle together, their minds telling them that there was safety in numbers.

"Oh my god," Hinata suddenly burst out, tears beginning to form in her eyes. "There—there...!" She shuddered, trying to compose herself for the sake of everyone. "At least thirty. And the one leading them... has a Byakugan, likely m-more p-powerful than m-mine!"

Overhearing this, Hanabi's eyes widened. More powerful than her's?! Hinata-nee has nearly a ten-mile range on her Byakugan, from all the times that our father pushed her, thinking that a powerful Byakugan would make up for her ineptness at taijutsu! I might be stronger than her, but my own Byakugan is only just shy of eight miles. Whowhat kind of monster could exceed that range?

Everything was crashing down all around them. The wonder and awe that they had all experienced in the bio-luminescent mushroom tunnel rapidly changed into fear and anticipation.

"Shikaku!" Itachi sharply said. "Where next?"

Shikaku traced out a twisting path on a blank part of the map, which Itachi quickly committed to memory without even using his Sharingan.

They had little time to get themselves into proper formation, so the plan was simple: run.

If that beast had an extremely powerful Byakugan lodged in its head, then there was little doubt that it could see them perfectly. He wasn't sure if monsters could feel fear the same ways humans did, but Itachi switched on his Mangekyo Sharingan, a display of power.

Naturally, those who were able to fend the monsters off lingered near the back, so when the monsters caught up—they traveled at a much faster pace than the survivor group—they would be able to protect the others better.

Hanabi was in the middle of the pack, furiously debating with herself whether to keep running like a chicken with her head cut off, or to make herself useful by joining the fighters at the back of the fleeing group. Hinata was right behind her, thinking the same thing. But with the power of their Byakugans, they would easily be able to see the battle, so they remained where they were.

Their frantic footsteps echoed in the cave, and were soon joined by thumping, heavier ones.

How could I have miscalculated so gravely?! Shikaku was absolutely kicking himself, though he really couldn't have known. Sasori had sent out hunting parties day after, and none of his party members had ever been confronted by a single monster, let alone a whole pack.

"There they are, the ugly fuckers!" Anko spat when the Byakugan Monster appeared in her vision. She grinned wildly, looking unhinged and fearful at the same time. More appeared behind it, sporting all sorts of features. Each monster was unique, taking on traits that they had once possessed as human beings. Some had hair, others too-large teeth, and birthmarks blown completely out of proportion. The monster right behind the Byakugan Monster had quite a lovely mop of ginger hair on top of its bulging head, short, but sharp horns poking through the hairs. "DIE!"

A particularly eager monster that had ran past the Byakugan Monster had gotten to close for comfort, and was rewarded by Anko slicing off its arm with Orochimaru's old Kusanagi. Black-green liquid splattered across her front, but it only made her deranged grin stretch even wider. If she didn't fear being infected, she would have lapped up the spot of blood near the corner of her lip.

The Byakugan Monster eyed its writhing comrade with thinly veiled disdain, the type that Sasori only saw in the most refined aristocrats. Who were you? A Hyuuga, I assume, but... How did you get out of the city? A rogue? Chakra claws wrapped around his fingertips, his pensive frown deepening when he realized that they wouldn't be able to get out of this without a good bloodletting.

Well.

He was used to blood. Old blood, new blood, man's blood, monster's blood—in the end, didn't it all start out the same?

In a warm, living body.

So Sasori slashed mercilessly with his neko-tes, knowing his puppets would be little more than a hindrance in such a tight environment. Deidara was the same, forced to use a tanto she had borrowed from Shisui just minutes after Karin raised the alarm. It was a weapon that she was practiced in, more so than the bo staff that Tenten seemed to favor. The same bo staff which the bun-haired girl was now holding up defensively as she ran, her body angled sideways so she could jump into the fray if a monster got too close.

They couldn't fight like this anymore.

Kakashi, the furthest back from the frontlines, actually pulled down his mask and shouted in a voice louder than anyone had ever heard him use, "KEEP GOING!" He planted his foot in the dirt, skidding to a stop. "Everyone..." He put his mask back on again.

"Aa." Itachi narrowed his eyes at the monsters, which had slowed to a walk when they realized that the martial artists had stopped running. The civilians looked back once—Sakura looked especially torn—before they kept going.

Izumi looked at the sleeping babe in her arms. My darling... I'm sorry. She kissed the baby on the forehead one last time before passing the drowsy babe on to Asagi, the closest woman to her.

"Izumi-san, what are you—"

"Look after him," Izumi commanded, her eyes desperate. "Please. There are so many of them. I can't stand by idly anymore."

Asagi was horrified. "Oh, Izumi-san, you mustn't!"

"Asagi!" Izumi wiped her tears away with the back of her palm. "You owe my family, don't you? If you ever want to repay your debt to Itachi, let it be this!" She could see that there were over thirty of those things now, and they were hopelessly outnumbered. "You'll be his godmother. Rin has too much on her plate, and I trust you."

"Izumi!" Asagi screamed as the Uchiha woman disappeared, worming through the crowd, completely forgetting about the honorific. "IZUMI!" She wept, but her legs kept going and going until she reached where Sakura was ushering her mother and her son along. Her mother ended up clambering on a pale Hitoshi's back, while Shizune picked up Shogo and held him close in her arms, seeing as Asagi was clutching Izuna. The baby was awake by now, and, as if sensing something was wrong, began to cry. "Shh, shh," Asagi hushed, squeezing her eyes shut momentarily. "Dear boy... Oh, Izumi, please come back safe. Please."

Meanwhile, thunder was pounding in Deidara's ears as she sliced limbs off her opponents, unable to get close enough to safely skewer their hearts. Vines slammed against the cave walls with wild abandon, sending crumbles of rock and dust everywhere. It was like her entire mind had switched to a mode where she could not fully comprehend everything anymore—there was only one thing that needed to be done and that was to kill. These monsters had murdered her comrades, and done far worse to others. They deserved to die. Death was the only option for them. Blood nearly sprayed in her eyes when she managed to slice through some thinner vines with her chakra-laced short blade, nicking the face of the Ginger Monster. Those vines were strong enough to survive a C2 bomb, and that level of explosion had only charred the surface.

The Ginger Monster shrieked, outstretching its hands. Without warning, its already elongated nails grew at an exponential rate, nearly piercing Deidara in the heart. She managed to quickly skirt to the side, but the monster used this opportunity to smash her against the cavern wall with one mighty swing of the arm. But before she was finished, Shisui leaped in front of her, blocking the killing blow with his tanto.

She quickly scrambled up, stabbing the Ginger Monster in the heart through the back, while Shisui had it distracted. It deflated almost comically, becoming nothing more than a heap of skin on the floor.

A large stalactite fell from the ceiling, dividing Deidara and Shisui.

"Thanks," Deidara managed to gasp out, adrenaline still coursing through her veins as she desperately tried to refill her lungs with air. Who's next? she thought almost mechanically, swerving around to see Itachi actually stab his arm through a monster's chest, taking out its heart.

"Don't mention it, sunshine." With that, he was off, assisting Kagami with a particularly big beast.

'Sunshine'. She could have snorted at that, but there were other, more pressing matters currently at hand. Even though her body shifted into autopilot again, she wasn't completely blind to her surroundings. From all the vines being thrashed around, chunks of stone and rock were falling dangerously from the ceiling, and sharp stalactites cracked at the seams of the base.

Cave-in, her mind screamed at her. Cave-in!

It was precisely for this reason that Deidara wasn't able to use even the most minor of explosives in this battle. Not only was there a lack of space, but if she set off even a C1, she would probably bring everyone else down by causing the roof to collapse on them.

She didn't know how long she'd been fighting for, but, eventually, there were only nine left. Itachi had taken out most of them, which was impressive, as he wielded only a blunt kunai, Kakashi's amount of kills almost reaching the Uchiha prodigy's number. Kisame's sword, Samehada, was also quite effective at shredding monster hearts and flesh into bloody pieces.

But then she saw something that made her freeze. Somewhere along the way, Izumi had joined the battle. She was covered head to toe in blood and panting heavily, the Amaterasu she had learned from Itachi the only thing keeping her alive. She dodged left and right, carrying only a short sword. Near her, Sasuke was attempting to cut through a monster with thick skin with his slick-with-blood katana, clearly trying to make a monster-less path to Izumi, so he could protect her.

Deidara forced her tanto through a small monster's chest with a newfound energy, her focus shifting almost entirely to Izumi. Rocks were falling left and right now, and she could have sworn that the cave was actually shaking. She prayed that the civilian group had already exited by now, or at the very least far away enough to avoid getting caught up in the inevitable cave-in.

"KAKASHI!" Shisui suddenly screamed, the sound coming from the very back of his throat.

Kakashi was in the middle of getting himself untangled from a monster's vines, not noticing the gigantic stalactite that was falling toward him end-first. The vines hadn't even finished falling off of his body before Shisui was suddenly there.

Not even Itachi had the time to blink before the stalactite pierced through the torso and chest of the man that had once been his best friend, Kakashi righting himself from being pushed out of the way.

The silver-haired man's eye widened in shock. "No..."

For all his loudness, Shisui was surprisingly quiet in his dying. His eyes were glazed over, and he couldn't even speak as his soul slowly slipped away from his bruised and battered body. Then their gazes met: Itachi's and Shisui's.

A flurry of emotions—shock, disbelief, the telling silver linings of immense grief—were passing through the former's eyes at a rapid rate, as his genius mind attempted to process just what was happening before his very eyes.

A monster bayed.


"Itachiiiiiii!"

A bead of sweat rolled down Itachi's neck as he stepped to the side, a flying blur whooshing past him at the speed of light. The blur skidded to a stop, sending a cloud of dust flying into the air.

"Shisui," Itachi sighed out. At four years old, his mother had decided that he needed more friends, and had set up a play-date with his cousin, Shisui, just one week ago. He was a few years older than Itachi, but his enthusiasm and instant attachment made his hackles rise. Itachi had never met such a person before, most Uchiha preferring to keep a stoic, unflinching mask on their faces. Itachi was one such example.

"Where're you going, Itachi?" Shisui asked, patting down his front to remove excess dust.

Itachi pointed to a nearby dessert shop, run by two perfectly polite Uchiha. "I wanted some dango."

"'Wanted'?"

"You're here now, so I don't see the point of going anymore. You'll just ruin it." It was rude, yes, but Itachi had just come out of training with his father in their private courtyard, and he could feel the welts his father had given him grating painfully against the back of his shirt. It'd been bamboo practice poles today. A similar, smaller type was used as a tool to cane undisciplined children. Humiliating.

Shisui wilted, feelings obviously hurt. But then he schooled his hurt into a mask, grinning broadly at Itachi. The gesture shocked him into silence. "Why don't I treat you then? Then old Fugaki won't have the pleasure of knowing he made you cry during training!"

Itachi stiffened. 'Fugaki'? The nerve! Speaking so derisively of his own clan head! "Uchiha do not cry." Strangely enough, he didn't feel the urge to reprimand Shisui, despite knowing how wrong it was.

"Did your dad tell you that?"

Yes. Yes he had, and Itachi had to admit he didn't really believe him. Though he was at the tender age of four, Itachi was smart enough to comprehend the vast range of human emotionsemotions that Uchiha were not exempt from exhibiting. But, still, he hadn't cried. Maybe a tear or two had slipped out because he was unused to the pain, but Shisui made it sound like he'd been wailing.

Watching Itachi zone out, a pensive frown on his face, Shisui rolled his eyes and walked around his cousin until he was standing behind him. Then he began to push Itachi toward the dessert shop, the younger boy's heels digging into the dirt. "Come on, Boy Wonder, let's get you your candy."

"Don't call me that."

"Itachin, then."

"No."

"Whyyyy?"

God, this boy could whine and it wasn't even funny. But when Itachi found himself sitting at a table and eating delicious dango, his vexation slowly melted away. He'd been unkind to Shisui, he realized. His cousin had done nothing to deserve such treatment, other than being a little too overbearing in his displays of kindness and eagerness. Guilt flooded his heart, and he peered sadly down at his plate.

"What's wrong?" Shisui asked, concern in his gaze.

Nobody had ever been so nice to him before, other than mother.

"Do you..." Itachi hesitated. "Still want to be friends?"

Shisui's eyes lit up.

They were inseparable for a time after that. When Itachi discovered that Izumi existed and had a most wonderful garden patch, he had put Shisui aside for a while, immediately feeling bad afterward. He tried to include both of them in his circle as much as possible, and eventually succeeded.

But then Shisui grew discontent with the ways of clan, Itachi sharing his sentiments. But the difference was that Shisui had acted. Deep down, Itachi knew that the sort of change Shisui wanted to bring around was good, but his methods were questionable. How was openly challenging the clan and acting carefree any helpful? Before they knew it, they'd drifted apart, Shisui discovering new friends in Maito Gai and Uchiha Obito, a pariah in the Uchiha clan.

They still talked from time to time, but the something that had been there in their childhood had long but disappeared. With wistful smiles, they cut their losses, mostly going their own separate ways. Eventually, Itachi came to find the clan ways unbearable when the elders protested against him marrying the love of his life, Izumi, stating her too common for the likes of the heir. So Itachi denounced his position, and estranged himself from the clan, for good. Izumi's childhood home was burned down after the death of her parents, and her garden patch destroyed. She'd wept immensely that day, and had been almost inconsolable. She'd cultivated that garden since the age of five.

It hadn't been a happy parting, him and Shisui, but it hadn't been a sad one, either.

But


He wished they hadn't parted at all.

Itachi froze, and Sasori noticed a monster—the Byakugan Monster—charging toward the Uchiha at unnatural speeds. It bellowed, but it was like Itachi was rooted to the ground.

"ITACHI!" Sasuke was nearly sliced in half by his opponent, forgetting about Izumi and trying to reach his brother. But he'd bee too late. "ITACHI! GET OUT OF THERE!"

Itachi... His body was moving before he even knew it, his pupils dilated and focused on only the rapidly closing distance between Itachi and the Byakugan Monster. He was one of the few that welcomed me when I came to Ame. I don't...

Sasori lashed out, ignoring the anguished shriek of Deidara telling them both to get the fuck out of here and

The Byakugan Monster bit down on Sasori's arm, fangs tearing through flesh and piercing the bone until the white ivory teeth appeared on the other side. The Byakugan Monster howled, continuing to rip at already torn flesh, and Sasori couldn't even scream, his brain completely disconnected from the pain.

But if he was going down, this motherfucking bastard was going down with him.

Itachi had finally snapped out of it, it seemed, and was horrified to find that Sasori had taken the blow for him, his mangled right arm still between the jaws of the monster as his chakra fluctuated dangerously, a chakra scalpel forming around his left arm. He stabbed the monster in the chest repeatedly, clumsily so that the wounds were ragged, and it screeched, vines flooding out of its back and wrapping around the Suna man, lifting him up until the lower half of his arm was almost detached from the rest of his body. The stabbing stuttered, Sasori's face going white from shock, not even registering the blonde blur flying towards them.

Even in pain, the monster managed to avoid Deidara's blade—instead of plunging into its heart, the metal ended up in its intestines. Screaming in grief and fury, she grabbed the handle and twisted, dragging it through the monster's flesh diagonally. "DIE! YOU DAMN FUCKER!"

Silver and green had joined gold, Kakashi and Gai jumping into the fray as the cave fell apart.

"KILL IT ALREADY!" Kagami yelled, a Mangekyo Sharingan spinning in their eye. "This place is about to collapse!" The Byakugan Monster was the only one left, and the remaining fighters were hesitant to join in. They would certainly all perish if they didn't run now.

"Fuck it," Kisame muttered. "Anko, throw me your sword! Now!" The purple-haired woman complied, and Kisame dashed toward where the others were, dodging falling stalactites. "HAAAA!" Expertly, he sliced through the vines holding Sasori, and cut off the red-haired man's arm while he was at it. There was no way that the limb could have been saved. Not even Sennin Tsunade could put it back together.

Sasori was barely conscious at this point, the white-hot pain he was feeling from the stump of his arm just keeping him awake. Kisame picked him up and ran down the cave, shouting for Deidara, Kakashi, and Gai to leave it and run while they still could.

They did, looking back desperately at Shisui's pulverized body. Considering his torso was split open and his intestines were mush, he looked surprisingly peaceful in death. The rock was still on him, and too heavy for them to move off in adequate time.

We'll have to leave him, Deidara thought numbly, a heavy aching in her chest. Her stomach was flipping and her entire body was heaving from a combination of terror, grief, and sheer anger, but her mind felt calm. Run. Run, run, run. Just run. That's all you can do... Alongside her, her comrades kept the pace. That's all we can do. Shisui, DannaSasorihis armhe'll turn—! A furious sob escaped her throat, and more threatened to sound but she pushed it back down. Fuck! This situation was so fucking hopeless

Itachi was covered head to toe in blood. Deidara didn't know how he had gotten so messy in so little time, but she didn't care. She didn't care anymore. Nothing mattered. Nothing.

DannaSasori. Izumi. Izumi, you're alive. Thank god. Thank god. Gai's okay. Gai's still okay. I can still count the number of people I care about on two hands, not one—it made her want to laugh at the sheer absurdity of it—her eyes snapped toward a figure behind them.

The Byakugan Monster was chasing them. Well, not chasing them, but limping after them. It had undergone a strange metamorphosis, half of its bulky, gray body swapped for a more humanoid shape, a pentadactyl limb emerging from the end of its right arm. The skin was melting away at the face as well, revealing an almost delicate human face.

Monster. Rage bubbled in her stomach. This—this thing that had murdered and pillaged dared to take on a human form? She'd kill it. She didn't care about lives anymore—she'd fucking cut its head off and quarter it

There was a resounding boom! as the cave collapsed behind them, leaving behind a mountain of rubble that blocked the entrance.

They met up with the group, their footsteps slowing down as they saw their wide-eyed comrades, huddled in fear. They'd thought they were monsters, covered in all that black blood and gore.

"Everyone's back!" Naruto blurted as he did a head count in his head. His heart sank. We're missing one. Who?

"Shisui's dead," Kakashi reported blandly, his voice devoid of any emotion. He stared straight ahead, as if he wasn't even seeing the people in front of him.

"Shisui?" Rin echoed in disbelief, her hands lifting to her mouth. "Oh my god..."

"Wait—who's that? Is he dead, too?" Hitoshi pointed at the bloody lump of human in Kisame's arms. Sasori's breath rose shallowly as he struggled to breathe properly. He looked so small and defenseless—as if he were a child rather than a man who could kill almost all of them if given the opportunity. His face was contorted in agony as he fought the disease of the Zetsu valiantly.

"His arm!" Shizune walked forward, her face tear-stained. "What—?"

"A monster bit him. I cut it off," Kisame stated, a haunted quality in his voice that hadn't been there before.

"You brought him back?!" Masami cried.

Shikamaru grimaced at the sight of him. "It's obvious he's turned. I... I don't want to say this, but—" He stopped abruptly.

"His chakra is changing," Karin said lowly. "It's changing..."

Hinata grabbed her sister's hand and squeezed it, fear evident on her face as she regarded Sasori. That poor man. They would have to kill him now, wouldn't they? None of them said the words out loud, but they hung in the air.

But then Sakura was there, and there was a syringe in Sasori's jugular. Whatever she had injected in him was like liquid fire, and he shouted, lurching upward and struggling in Kisame's grip.

"He's turning!" Karin screamed in fear, feeling the chakra turning even darker.

"KILL HIM!" Masami said the words first. "I KNOW HE'S VALUABLE, BUT WE HAVE TO KILL HIM!"

No. Nononono—Deidara's entire frame shook, the fury that had encompassed her body just minutes ago returning with a force that nearly swept her off her feet. Gai tried to grab her shoulder to calm her down, but she slapped his hand away. These... bastards! They're really going to kill him! The turmoil that had been building up in the pit of her stomach exploded, and she stormed forward and slapped Masami across the face, chakra laced throughout her hand.

A tooth flew out of the woman's mouth as her head snapped to the side. The area was already beginning to redden and swell, and tears brimmed in Masami's eyes. "Wh-wha—"

Suddenly, something changed, and the wretched, hissing scream that Sasori couldn't keep down ripped Deidara's heart in half, and she was certain the sound would haunt her for the rest of her life—for all eternity, for all posterity. A white, plant-like substance started to emerge from the stump of his arm, and everyone looked on with fascinated horror as it formed an arm—completely with a hand, fingers and all. There was a slick sheen on the newly grown limb, similar to the liquid one would find on a newly born baby.

The screaming died down soon after that, and Karin shuddered once more before relaxing. The dark chakra was gone from his body. Shizune looked in awe to Sakura. "You did it. The cure worked."

Sakura burst into excited, hopeful, blubbering tears, laughing and crying at it all.

"Life is already so short," Choji suddenly said. "No one should have to die too fast."

Numbly, Deidara walked toward Kisame, peering down at Sasori, who was now asleep, his timeless face looking more worn and weary than she had ever seen it. Wake up soon, Danna.

Everything was just starting to calm down when the footfall of an unknown reached their ears.

"What now?" Anko hissed, whirling around. "If it's that Byakugan bastard—"

A man—no, a teenager—with long, unkempt hair appeared, walking toward them in a daze, as if they weren't all roughing it in a cave and instead having an afternoon at the park. He opened his mouth, but closed it when he was met with hostile stares.

Deidara was prepared to kill him and be over and done with it when Hinata's trembling voice carried through the cave.

"N-Neji-nii-san?"


"What's your name?"

She blinked at the casual, outstretched hand belonging to the Uchiha. "Deidara. No family name, hm. Have I met you before...?"

He scratched his head. "No, I don't think so? It might have been one of my relatives. There're a lot of them wandering around these parts. But never mind that, welcome to Akatsuki, Deidara!"

A wry smile had her lips quirking upward. "Thanks...?"

"Shisui."

She shook his hand. It was so warm, just like his smile and heart. "Thanks, Shisui."

In real life, he'd treated her to dango and introduced her to Gai. But this time, painfully, he turned his back on her and walked away with a sad smile, disappearing into the Akatsuki crowd.

Deidara simply stood there, helpless to watch her first friend in Akatsuki vanish from her life forever. She tried to chase after him, but her feet were bound to the cobblestone and her voice was restricted to a whisper that would never reach his ears.


His dreams were haunted by gnashing teeth and baying howls. It was like Karin had said—they hid in the corners, and he could always find them at the angles. Waiting. Always waiting.

Monster, monster. A man screamed in the distance as his chakra neko-tes eviscerated him. All of his past victims were burned to the back of his eyeballs, and he would forever see himself, the person he'd once been and still was—Akasuna no Sasori—repeating the acts over and over again.

His parents were the final victims. Even if he hadn't struck the finishing blow, the blood was still on his hands.

"Maybe I'll tell you about myself someday, brat. About what I used to do in Suna and my family. About... Hatake."

Why, though?

He had controlled everything. He was a puppet master. He had controlled how the people perceived him, and made sure that they would only ever know him as Sasori, a normal, working-class man with a taijutsu and puppet-making hobby.

I thought I could control her, too. Contain her. And I could have.

But...

She had proven herself to him over and over again—she was an emotional brat, but she was also a loyal comrade and someone who he wouldn't mind spending the rest of his life with. Even if he didn't deserve her.

His parents faded away into dust, and so did Akasuna no Sasori.

Wondering why they hadn't killed him when they'd had the chance, Sasori awoke.

Chapter Text

"Life is already so short." Why did Shikamaru feel like those words were directed to him—or, more accurately, the words he'd been unable to suppress when it looked bleak for Sasori and all of them. "No one should have to die too fast."

Shikamaru tossed Choji a sideways glance, a heavy feeling settling uncomfortably in his heart. There were no tears from his friend, but there was a looming sadness in his eyes that spoke a thousand words. He looked away.

Because, you see, Shikamaru reacted to situations by not reacting at all. It was building up slowly and eating him away on the inside—had been ever since Ino died. He didn't like to show it, but her absence affected him more than anyone would ever know.

There was a sudden coldness in the air, and Shikamaru didn't have any more time to dwell on his thoughts.

A man—actually, no, teenager; he didn't look like he was much older than Shikamaru himself—approached them, managing to look haunted and surprised at the same time. The surprise doubled when his gaze landed on the Hyuuga sisters, Hinata and Hanabi.

Then Hinata spoke, and Shikamaru realized that he recognized the newcomer.

"N-Neji-nii-san?"

Dazed by his appearance, Hinata stumbled forward, only for Hanabi to yank her back by the arm.

"No, Hinata-nee!" the younger Hyuuga cried. "We don't know if it's actually him or not! He could be a monster!" She spat out the word with a hatred that Shikamaru could relate to. Her voice grew hysterical. "There was a monster with a Byakugan, wasn't there? I bet that's him!"

"Obviously." Anko unsheathed Kusanagi.

"Wait!" Neji, clearly realizing that he was going to be dismembered, beheaded, or both, held his hands up in a surrender, shakily getting down on his knees. Then he fixed the position of his arms behind his head. Anko approached anyway, holding Kusanagi and looking very much like an executioner. "I—"

"Monsters don't get last words," Anko stated coldly.

"Hold on, Anko." The words slipped out of Shikamaru's mouth before he could even register them. The leaders were shaken up right now—Kakashi stared hauntingly at Neji, Gai was eerily silent, and Itachi was covered head to toe in blood and was lost in his own, silent grief. The others weren't doing so great either—Deidara was simply trembling with barely controlled rage, his father was second-guessing himself, and Sasori was unconscious. Kisame could have done something, but his sentiments did not align with Shikamaru's. The shark-like man was first and foremost a warrior, and he saw it fit to slay the creature that murdered and disabled their comrades.

But Choji's words—they were intended for him, he was certain—struck a chord in him.

"Excuse me?" Anko didn't turn around. "I would love to hear you justify this, kid, but why don't we talk about this later, hm?!"

"Kill him already." Deidara's voice was dangerously soft. "Do it, Anko, before I do."

Shikamaru wracked his brain, eventually coming up with in record time, "He's a Hyuuga, isn't he? Doesn't this make this a clan matter? We have the two heiresses here with us. His fate is within their jurisdiction." At least then, Hanabi aside, Neji would have a fighting chance with pleading to Hinata.

"Are you fucking shitting me right now?!" Anko did whirl on him this time, confident that Neji wouldn't be attacking anytime soon. "We are not in Ame or Konoha! Fuck your jurisdiction—none of that matters out here, you hear me?! His kind killed Taro and so many more!"

"WAIT!" Hinata shouted. She pushed forward, placing herself between the kneeling Neji and Anko and shielding him with her body.

Hanabi was dreadfully confused and infuriated. "What are you doing?"

"Don't kill him. Please." For once, Hinata did not stutter, even if she swallow a lump in her throat before continuing. "I don't think he even k-knows what he did. I-I can see it…"

"Bullshit!" snapped Deidara, and Shikamaru stepped aside for her. "Don't be an idiot, hm!" Hinata hadn't seen what her precious relative had done to Sasori, how that kneeling monster in human skin tore his body apart like a ragdoll. "He's not human, anymore, he's a demon!" Her cheeks were flushed in anger, and she looked ready to explode at any moment.

"He isn't!" Hinata argued. "Karin-san didn't sense anything bad, did she? If anything happens, I-I'll take full responsibility for it."

"Oh? I don't see how you can, seeing as you'll be the one he kills first, hm." Deidara stepped forward, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Anko, who was looking approving for the first time since all this started. "And even if that wasn't the case, that will just mean you'll be responsible for someone else's demise. Can your conscious handle that, Hinata-chan? Hm?"

Hinata steeled herself for what she would say next, closing her eyes. "Y-You really are a hypocrite, Deidara-san. 'How dare they kill him'. That was what you were thinking w-when Sasori was on the verge of d-death, wasn't it?" Deidara's furious chakra was permeating the air, and Hinata struggled to continue, feeling choked, "How… is this any different? In the end, they're b-both human."

"Kid," Anko began in warning, but Deidara talked over her.

"Is that what you really think? You must be delusional. This is entirely different situation—your nii-san lived as a monster. He still is. Sasori has never been a monster, hm." Her words seemed to breathe some life into Kakashi again, who stiffened. "You wouldn't be saying these things if he wasn't a Hyuuga!"

"You're right!" Hinata straightened like a ramrod after being berated, shocking all of them, who had only ever registered her as a weak-willed wallflower. And perhaps she was, but there was more to her than that. "But that's the c-case for you, too, isn't it, Deidara-san? I'm defending Neji because he's my family—because I love him. I'm the same as you; you defended Sasori-san because he is someone you love and care about!"

Hanabi looked down to the floor. "Hinata…"

Deidara was stunned into silence for a moment. "That—"

In the distance, they could hear the cave crumble, sending vibrations down the system.

"We need to go!" Rin voiced what they were all thinking, grimacing up at the ceiling as she protectively held her children close to her. "It isn't safe here."

She was right; they all knew that. In the dark, they didn't know what time it was, and their only resolve was to simply keep going.

When they emerged from the cave, it was nearly sundown. It was almost as if the world had changed, actually. Behind them, the clouds had been grey, and it had rained almost perpetually. On this side of the mountain, the sun could be seen, and the skies were a splash of oranges and pinks.

Izumi, Izuna now back in her arms, took a deep breath of fresh air, cleansing her lungs of the stale cave air.

There wasn't another bunker for miles, so they set up camp on the rocky landing just outside of the cave. They had a high view, and would be able to see any monsters coming from far away. Not to mention, they had the Hyuugas' Byakugan eyes on their side, as well as Karin's hypersensitivity to chakra (but considering her violent reactions to monster chakra, there was definitely a drawback). When the malevolent chakra wasn't overpowering her senses, however, she could sense even the smallest creature in the forest. She described their chakras as if they were a separate language to their own, like music attuned to the melody of the natural world. It was something she heard all the time, and got used to.

They were too exhausted, too shaken to hunt, and Sasori was obviously out of commission. So they settled for devouring some of their rations, which were carefully removed from a storage scroll that Kakashi held on to. He did it without complaint, without even eye-smiling obnoxiously at Hitoshi, who was the first to decide that they needed to eat.

A fire was soon up and burning, the people sitting around it to warm themselves. Beneath them, the cold stone sucked the heat from their bodies, so they kept close to the bonfire. It was almost like their early days out here again, when the war had only tilted the earth a little way around and there had been no monsters lurking around at every corner. But there was a gaping abyss among them, where living bodies had once been, threatening to swallow them whole; the coldness chilled them, as if they were standing alone in an empty space, and not their upside-down world.

Their distrust for Neji was blatantly obvious. They spoke not a word about him, or to him; but, rather, they sat as far away from as possible, sneaking glances toward his eerily still form from time to time. Even Sasuke was more well-received, Izumi have no objections to having her husband's little brother seated to her left.

Sasuke had just finished eating when he discovered Izuna tilting his head backward over his mother's bicep, staring up at him. He almost shivered. His nephew had the exact same eyes as his father, shape and all. Nonetheless, he was drawn to him, but refrained from touching him.

Naruto, seated on Sasuke's other side, was chewing his food when he leaned forward to see Sasuke's too-blank expression. A knowing glint came into his eye. "Ne, teme, why don't you just ask, 'ttebayo? If you can hold him, that is."

Sasuke's default scowl deepened, but his expression softened as he looked toward his baby nephew. Izuna reached chubby one arm out and stretched it behind him. Very hesitantly, Sasuke lifted his own calloused hand.

Of course, someone just had to open their mouth.

"What are you doing?" Tenten inquired suspiciously, spotting the subtle movement. Sasuke opened his mouth to make a cutting retort, but Izumi spoke up first.

"It's okay, Tenten." She'd noticed Sasuke's fidgeting long ago. Izumi shifted her body so that she was facing Sasuke. She held Izuna a little out, and Sasuke almost recoiled. He looked so breakable from this angle. He was smaller than the average baby—of that, Sasuke was sure. Was it just genetics, or had the environmental conditions of this godforsaken place taken more of a toll on Izumi than he'd first thought? Still, his being on the small side didn't stop Izuna from trying to grab Sasuke. But this time, Sasuke didn't reach out again, suddenly conscious of the blood he had on his hands. No—no, he didn't want to dirty him. Sasuke dug his nails into his palms, causing little half-moon indents to appear on the skin.

This shouldn't be me, he thought desperately. I shouldn't be the one sitting here with my family, it should be

Deidara got up abruptly from her spot and walked away, announcing shortly that she would be going off for a little bit.

Shisui. Kind, clever Shisui, who seemed to be friends with everyone. He was uncle material, not Sasuke. Not Sasuke, who had abandoned his family in their greatest time of need to serve a rogue relative.

Izumi glanced worriedly after Deidara. She saw Rin looking like she was about to get up and go after her, and made up her mind. Rin had Daichi and Hikari to look after—both children were a little shaken after the last attack. Sasuke grew paler than she'd thought he could get when she passed him the blanket-swathed Izuna. "Look after him for me, Sasuke-kun." Then she arose, lifting her arms up in a stretch. "If he gives you any trouble, ask Itachi." A small smile graced her features as she padded off toward the direction Deidara had gone.

Sasuke and Itachi exchanged a look, the former holding Izuna more awkwardly than he would have liked.

"Itachi," Sasuke began awkwardly.

"Sasuke, here." Reluctantly, Sasuke gave Izuna to Itachi, the baby bewildered from their parting. That would probably be the last time Sasuke ever got to hold him. It disheartened him, but he would understand. But then Itachi mirrored Sasuke's previous positioning of Izuna and fixed his mistake. "Hold him like this, so his neck is supported."

"I-I see." Uchiha weren't supposed to stutter, but Sasuke felt almost giddy as Izuna was returned to his arms. Remembering what his brother had showed him, Sasuke amended his hold. "Like this?" He had a bead of sweat dripping down the side of his cheek, and his eyebrows were furrowed in deep concentration.

Itachi, face darkened slightly by the monster blood that had stained his skin before he'd wiped it off, smiled wearily. "Aa."

"Are you sure about this?" Sasuke muttered. "Why are you—?" Whatever he'd been about to say next turned into a splutter when Itachi poked his forehead.

"Foolish little brother," Itachi said affectionately. "Why would I ever deny you from him? You're his uncle." Despite the light teasing, his eyes were somber, something that Sasuke didn't miss. I have enough regrets, otouto. Don't make me die with even more.

Swallowing the annoying lump in his throat, Sasuke forgot all about the stain on his soul, and touched Izuna's tiny, breakable finger with his own. It was like they were meeting for the first time. The tension in Sasuke's shoulder heightened for a split second before he relaxed. "Hey... Izuna-kun."


Deidara sat on the part of the hilltop where rocks and pebbles gradually turned into grass. Beyond her was a field of long grass, blowing gently in the night. Beyond even that were a stretch of trees that still kept their leaves, even in the winter. Perhaps if one stared at her from the distance, she would look to be the pinnacle of serenity, but in every cubic centimeter of her body, she waged a war with herself.

She knew, slowly, that she was being disassembled. Almost nothing was going right, and her own mind was just as much of an enemy as Tsukigakure or the monsters. She would not succumb to it, but it was as if she was slowly being pulled down, the only thing keeping her afloat immense fury and the small, minuscule hope that she wouldn't have to lose any of them.

Her fingers twitched, urging for something to do. She was never really the one to keep still.

A particularly cold wind crept down the back of her neck, and she pulled her legs toward her chest. Beneath her tatty Akatsuki cloak, the green gi she'd been wearing was even dirtier, fabric scraping almost painfully against her oily, blood-covered skin. She'd wiped most of it off, but she could still feel it there, sealing a layer of dust in between skin and bloodstains.

The ground crunched behind her, but she didn't turn around. Another figure crouched beside her for a moment before sitting down cross-legged.

Then she spoke, choking on her own tears, "I'm so sorry."

Deidara's eyes reached half-mast. "What for, hm?" Izumi's arms wrapped around her, but she still felt cold. The other woman began to shake as she cried, Shisui's name on her lips, but the blonde's eyes remained dry. The whirlpool continued to thrash inside her, but nothing escaped from her body—it was almost as if she was no longer in touch with reality, simply staring out into the distance unmovingly.

Shisui was dead and Sasori's life hung on the thinnest thread.

And she could do nothing about those two things.

Eventually, Izumi's sobs stifled, and she merely laid her head on Deidara's shoulder.

"Are we ever going to make it?"

Izumi's eyes shifted upward as Deidara spoke, her voice hoarse with the most terrible grief that the Uchiha woman had ever heard. Her own heart twisted in agony, and she had to take a deep breath to keep herself calm. "That's a really unfair question to ask me, you know."

A bitter feeling encased her heart. Of course it was. Izumi was not the right person to ask this question. None of them were.

Izumi's fingers entwined with Deidara's. "Hey, we'll get through this. We'll stay strong. Survive." Her voice was wavering with uncertainty, but she ploughed on. "And then we'll mourn everyone. Give them a proper funeral. We'll remember them forever."

A noisy bug chirped in the grass by Deidara's feet. She looked down, bangs falling further past her chin. Her hair had always been long, but it'd grown out to a point where it would be more difficult to manage properly. If Izumi's words ever came to fruition, she would trim it.

"He's going to be okay."

At that, Deidara straightened, giving Izumi a look. "What?"

There was a ghost of a smile on her face. "Sasori, of course. Deidara, you're one of my closest friends—did you really think I wouldn't notice? Not to mention, you don't hide it very well. Masami-san is still nursing her cheek."

"She deserved it, hm!" Deidara said sharply, her brewing anger lashing out like a whip for a split second. Sometimes, she felt as if she were burning, and it wasn't from the outrage she felt from today's incident. It was as if ghost-like hands were pressing against her chest, setting her lungs on fire and making her heart ache, condemning her for allowing them to die—Hitomi, Ino, Sawako, Shisui...

"Of course," Izumi said agreeably. "But we digressed—the point is, I understand. If that were Itachi in Kisame's arms, I... I wouldn't even know what to do." Her voice quietened to a small whisper in the night. "I'd be beside myself. I'd shut down. He and Izuna... they mean the world to me."

Her voice was so sincere. It almost made her shiver. At least out here, if gave in to the impulse, she could blame it on the cold. "I'm terrified," she admitted. "I don't want him to die. I don't want anyone to die, hm." But never, ever him. Not my Danna.

They say in silence for a bit, enjoying the evening as much as they could.

"So," Deidara started, desperate to lighten the weight on her shoulders, "I hear that Asagi's Izuna's godmother now?"

Izumi smiled sheepishly. "Already? Word travels fast. Who did you hear from?"

"The scar-nose guy. Iruka, un."

"It was a spur of the moment thing," Izumi explained. "But I don't regret it at all. I could have made it you, but you're a bit young, haha..."

"I'm nineteen," Deidara sniffed, cracking a small smile. "You've got five years on me, tops."

"Still." Izumi winked at her. "Don't want to saddle you with too much responsibility."

The small talk went on for a little longer before Deidara stopped trying to establish any sort of normalcy. "How is he doing? Sasori-no-Danna, that is, un."

"You'd be better off asking Sakura that," answered Izumi. She rubbed her arms as the mountain breeze kissed her skin through her clothes easily. "We should go back, or we'll freeze out here."

"Yeah," Deidara stood, helping her up, "you're right." Going back to camp meant facing Neji again, but she'd just have to deal with it and count on her sanity. Snapping at him wouldn't do them any good, even if the Hyuuga made Sasuke seem more forgivable.


Chihiro could have sworn she heard an owl hooting in the distance. It fascinated her to no end. Growing up in the city, she'd never seen or heard an owl before. The first half of their journey to Konohagakure was something she would like to erase from her memory forever, but she recalled that there'd been very few animals around.

Kisame passed her a can of goop. She looked down at it. She'd eaten worse. At least the fire was warm. Greedily, she slurped it up, thanking the shark-man between wet mouthfuls. It tasted completely unnatural, but food was food.

She hadn't seen the fighting, but there'd been a heavy atmosphere ever since the martial artists rejoined the civilians. The child could feel grief and sorrow permeating the air, and she wondered if she could ever comprehend it to the same extent as the adults.

"What's wrong kid?" Kisame noticed her glumness.

"Everything," Chihiro whispered. "Everyone is so... How many more, Kisame-sensei?"

"I don't know, kid." Kisame heaved a great sigh, nearly unbalancing the bandaged sword strapped on his back. "Hey, don't ask so depressing questions, okay?" He ruffled her hair, and she looked up at gloomily. "Chihiro-chan, don't think about them."

"How can I not?" She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, licking the sauce that had transferred from the corners of her mouth to her skin. Chihiro's voice dropped to a whisper as she raised her eyes slightly to observe Neji, who wasn't eating. The Hyuuga boy was merely sitting with his head down, surrounded by people with deadly talents, yet seeming so alone. Everyone is looking at him like he's a...

"Monster," Chihiro heard Masami mutter from close by, and she thought the woman was talking about Kisame at first. She had her mouth opened, ready to defend the shark-man, when she realized something.

Tenten stood up and grabbed Chihiro's arm when the little girl started toward Neji. "Chihiro! What are you...?" The bun-haired girl eyed Neji distrustfully, her grip on Chihiro's wrist tightening. "Don't."

"But he hasn't eaten anything," Chihiro protested.

"Oh, trust me, I'm sure he's eaten plenty," muttered Tenten, pulling Chihiro back to her place.

While Chihiro glanced at her confusedly, Hinata tensed up. She knew her friend only had the best for all of them in mind, but a part of her wanted to jump to Neji's defense. It was foolish of her, she knew, but—

"Listen." Tenten's voice sounded next to Chihiro's ear. "He isn't like Kisame, who only looks misleadingly scary. Chihiro, promise me you'll stay away from him."

She didn't want to promise, but Tenten's voice was stern and pleading at the same time. "Okay," she agreed quietly, "I will."

Tenten let out a breath of relief. "Thank you." She picked at her food for a little before saying, "I was fighting, too, you know. I didn't do much, mostly assisting the others. But I saw the Hyuuga in his true form."

"How can you tell which is which? Hinata-san seems to trust him enough."

"That's because she's biased," Tenten tried to explain as objectively as possible. "They're family, remember?"

"I guess it makes sense. It's like how you're like a sister to me, Tenten." Chihiro snuggled into the crook of her armpit.

Tenten faltered. "I suppose—"

"I'd still love you even if you became a monster."

"Oh." Tenten's voice was soft, more uncertain. Gently, she put her hand on Chihiro's head, ruffling her hair, not knowing really what to say to that.


"Hey, Sasuke, can I hold 'im?" Naruto asked, peering curiously down at a quiet Izuna. Quiet didn't mean asleep, though, and the baby was very much awake and trying to pull at Sasuke's bangs. He looked up at Itachi. "Uh, I mean, if you don't mind, 'ttebayo."

Itachi smiled. "Of course not, Naruto."

"Tch!" Sasuke glared at Naruto. "You'd better not drop him, dobe."

"Geez, teme! Have a little more faith in me, will ya?" He stuck his tongue out at Sasuke as he received the baby from the younger Uchiha brother. Eyes growing wide, he broke out into a grin almost instantly. "Aww, hey little guy! You can call me Naruto-nii if you want. Can you say Naruto-nii?"

Sasuke scoffed. "He's three weeks old, Naruto."

"Then I'd better start making sure that his first word is, 'Naruto-nii', dattebayo! I'll be the fun uncle and everything—y'know," Naruto rolled his eyes at Sasuke, "since you can't, with that giant stick up your—"

"Naruto," Itachi interjected sternly, noticing that Izuna seemed enraptured by the blond.

"—fun-zone!" Naruto amended at the last second.

Daichi choked on his food, shooting them an incredulous look. "'Fun-zone'?"

"Daichi." Rin gave her son a suspicious narrowing of the eyes. "You'd better not know what that means, ne?" Daichi resembled a deer in headlights for a moment, and Rin chuckled.

"O-Of course not! Hn!" Red-faced, Daichi turned away.

Hikari blinked lazily at her brother. "Aniki's being weird again."

"Hmph. Well, he is prepubescent," Chiyo's ancient voice came from the left. "It's only natural."

Meanwhile, Sasuke and Naruto were butting heads over the most minute of things. Sasuke fussed every time he found a mistake in Naruto's hold, from the head not being supported to the neck being too constricted or the blankets not being tight enough, he found something to complain about every twenty seconds. From the side, Itachi watched them with some amusement, the fire reflecting in his coal eyes.

"Boys." Both Uchiha and Naruto glanced upward to see Sakura standing over them with her hands on her hips. She took Izuna from Naruto, the blond giving little resistance. Then she proceeded to tuck him close to her breast, the baby gurgling contentedly. "Like this, Naruto. See?"

"That's what I was trying to tell him all this time," grumbled Sasuke. "But how do you know, Sakura? You hold it exactly like my brother, actually."

Sakura smiled. "Who do you think taught it to him in the first place?"

Naruto and Sasuke both whipped their heads to the side to see a very small blush on Itachi's cheeks. Funnily enough, Itachi remained completely straight-faced.

"I never got to thank you for that," Itachi said.

"It's no problem." Sakura gave him a thumbs-up. "I'm just doing my duty."

"Stop that." Sakura almost jumped when Sasuke suddenly spoke up. "It's not just your duty."

"Besides," Naruto added, "you saved Sasori-sama's life today, and thanks to you, we have Byakugan-guy under control. You're a hero, Sakura-chan."

Sakura swallowed, looking slightly frazzled as she fought back tears. "Guys..."

"Thank you." Itachi cut off any protest that might have come from her. "For saving my friend."

Sakura closed her eyes and tried to breathe steadily as she handed Izuna back to Itachi. "I... I really want to hug you guys right now."

"What's stopping ya?" Naruto retorted, grinning widely as he stood and opened up his arms. Returning the smile, Sakura embraced him tightly, and the blond blushed slightly. Then Sakura extended her hand down to the still-sitting Sasuke.

"Sasuke?" she prompted hopefully.

"Yeah, come on, teme, it'll help fight off the cold, 'ttebayo."

"Hn." Grunting, Sasuke stood without taking Sakura's hand and awkwardly shoved himself against the two. Naruto was right, he had to admit. It was warm. He couldn't remember the last time he had been in such close proximity to others.

As they hugged it out, Naruto and Sakura forcefully trapping a grumbling Sasuke in their hug and not allowing him to escape, Gai poked at the fire with a cold stick, round eyes flicking to the man beside him every few seconds. There were tears in Gai's eyes, and it wasn't just from the smoke. Kakashi was so silent next to him, and it hurt every fiber of his being. The loss of Shisui made him ache even more, to the point where if one looked closely, they could notice him shuddering.

"Kakashi-kun," Rin, sitting on the other side of Kakashi, touched his shoulder lightly, "Hey, turn around." Kakashi did, and Rin's face fell at the tell-tale shadow of grief in his lone eye.

The silver-haired man reached to her for a second, wanting to pull her close and never let her go, lest she fade away. But he faltered, arm dropping to his side. "Yes?" he asked lightly, as if that hadn't just happened.

Narrowing her eyes at him, she grabbed his hand. "Don't push me away. Please." Her eyes dropped. "I can't lose another person I love." It wasn't just her either, and Kakashi didn't protest when she drew him into a hug.

Slowly, he melted into her touch. "I'm sorry, Rin. I couldn't save him."

"Shisui?" Her voice was tinged with sadness. "Kakashi—"

"Not just him." He pulled back a little, and Rin was able to glimpse that bare grief in his eye again.

Obito. The name of the man they had both loved and cherished hung in the air.

"Don't," Rin murmured. "Don't, please. Never. I've never blamed you for it. You are not accountable for anybody's death."

Oh, but if he had been faster, been more aware—

Kakashi squeezed his eye shut, sinking into his what-ifs.

"Um, Kakashi-oji?"

He opened his eye to see Hikari looking up at him. "Yes?"

"What okaa-chan said is true. I miss otou-san very much, but I'm glad you're still here to comfort okaa-chan. Thank you, Kakashi-oji-san."

"Yeah," Daichi put in, looking a little less friendly than his sister, but earnest nonetheless. "Look after our mom, okay? You're supposed to be friends."

Kakashi froze up, staring at the children. For an instant, he saw Obito standing behind them, grinning as he patted their heads affectionately. Then he tore his gaze away from them, turning to Rin. Seeing his own sorrow reflected in her world-weary brown eyes knocked the breath out of his lungs, and he dug his nails into his palms once before relaxing. Eye-smiling ever so slightly, he said, "Hai."

"Hey, Kakashi!" Gai tapped his shoulder. "You should probably turn around. Your kids over there are having a youthful moment!"

Kakashi turned, and Kakashi saw. It made his heavy heart lighter, and his eye-smile grew more curved. "They haven't been my kids for a long time now." He watched in delight as Sasuke finally managed to yank himself out of Sakura's iron grip, and hassled Itachi for possession of Izuna (for he knew that Sakura wouldn't dare try to grab him again when he was holding a baby).

"It is true, Gai-sensei!" Tenten almost groaned when Lee joined in, tears in his eyes. "In the midst of tragedy, a truly youthful moment is blooming under the heavens." He put his arm over his face, sniffling. "Tenten... if only I could experience such a thing, then I would be truly joyous."

"Well," Tenten said awkwardly, "you have Chihiro and I over here if you want?"

"You mean it?" Tenten squawked when Lee clung on to her and Chihiro. "Gai-sensei! Look over here, we too are having a most youthful moment!"

Gai's eyes bloomed with even more tears. "Ah, excellent, Lee!" Though his voice was rather goofy by default, Tenten couldn't help but notice the sorrowful inflection to it. "Do you see, my Eternal Rival? My kids are just as youthful as yours, if not more!"

Chihiro yawned. "I'm tired..."

Chihiro wasn't the only one, and soon, everybody was popping futons out and laying them across the flat stone ground. There weren't enough for everyone, so they decided that two people would occupy each futon. Three, if they were small enough. It would provide body warmth, and everyone would be getting approximately the same amount of comfort.

Deidara and Izumi returned just in time to claim a futon each. Izumi, Itachi, and Izuna were a family unit, obviously, so Deidara shared with Rin, Daichi, and Hikari. All four of them were on the small side, so it wasn't too tight of a fit.

Anko and Kakashi volunteered to stand guard as well as keep the fire burning. They would be relieved by Izumo and Kotetsu in a few hours.

Sasori's singular futon was guarded by Sakura, Shizune, and Chiyo. The old woman hadn't left his side once, snapping at whoever had hostile sentiments when they got too close. She had given Masami a severe tongue lashing, and had sniped at a regretful Shikamaru as well.

Neji didn't get a futon. He slept far away from everyone else, but close enough within striking distance when it came to Deidara's bombs.

Not all of them went to sleep right away, or even got into their futons. Tenten and Shikamaru were one of the last ones up.

"Are you okay?" she asked him. They'd never really talked, but he had this odd look in his eye.

"Fine, just..." Shikamaru glanced at where Neji was lying down, cold and alone. "Troubled," he settled for. He didn't regard him with hatred, surprisingly enough. Not like Deidara or Anko or Hanabi or—

Tenten cleared her throat. "Are you afraid of him? That he'll snap and go on a rampage?"

Shikamaru gave her a dubious once-over. "Not exactly." For all his genius, he'd never been very good at explaining feelings.

"You stood up for him back there," Tenten remembered. "Why?"

Before Shikamaru could answer, a noise was heard. They both tensed, whipping around to find—

"Izuna?" Tenten stared at the baby that had rolled out of his futon, somehow managing not to wake up Itachi and Izumi, both of whom he had been sandwiched inbetween. "He's moving already?" True, the baby wasn't crawling or doing any amazing toddler feats, but the fact that he could manoeuvre himself at three weeks was pretty impressive. He didn't get far, only managing two flips on the floor before squirming in discomfort. Almost frantically, she rushed over as silently as she could and picked up the child before it could begin to squall. Izuna was generally a pretty quiet baby, but he was still a baby. Which meant he could cry like hell.

"Um." Shikamaru sidled up to her, a bead of sweat trailing down his cheek as he peered down at the little bundle in Tenten's arms. "Should we put him back?"

"No, no, not yet. I don't want to wake them after they just fell asleep. They both fought today, and they're really tired."

Shikamaru was skeptical. "How is time going to make any difference? In the end, they're both trained masters of the Amaterasu. You'll just delay them waking up."

"Funny how a baby could sneak past them." Tenten's lips tugged upward in a smile. "Trust me, Shikamaru-san—"

"Just Shikamaru. 'Shikamaru-san' is what the teachers called me whenever I got a failing grade back at the academy."

"They're really tired, Shikamaru."

Izuna was tired, but not quite tired enough to fall asleep right away. He was a hair-grabber for sure, but Tenten's bangs were too short for him to grasp. Annoyed, Izuna tried to stretch his arm even further.

"Cute," Shikamaru mumbled woodenly. "Are all babies like this, or is it just the Uchiha ones? But to answer your question..." He looked heavenward, up at the stars. "It was something that Choji said, spur of the moment. He has the tendency to bottle everything up and spill it all in a few short words of an outburst. It's stupid how such a thing had such a huge effect on me..." Sighing deeply, he pinched his nose, and Izuna stopped fussing with Tenten's hair to pay attention to him.

"Oh. Don't worry about it. I... I kind of know where you're coming from. Chihiro said something that I can't get out of my head. She said she'd love me even if I were a monster. Is... no, that's how Hinata feels, right?"

"Probably. It's really troublesome, isn't it?"

"Definitely. I mean, on one hand, my head is telling me to just stab him in the heart and be over with it. On the other, my heart says that I should give him a chance."

"I would say that this isn't the right place to use your heart," Shikamaru said, "But to not use it... Somehow, I think that would be even worse."

Tenten silently agreed, rocking Izuna in her arms. "Okay, you were right before. We should put him back."

"Yes, you should." Sasuke's voice reached their ears as he marched up to them. How long had he been listening? "Thank you for looking after him."

"Ah... It's no big deal..." Tenten handed the child back to his uncle with slight discomfort. Beside her, Shikamaru's pupils had narrowed slightly.

They watched as Sasuke tucked Izuna back between his two tired parents with surprising tenderness. His default scowl was no longer there, and it was as clear as day that he felt a strong love for the baby.

"I wonder what Sasuke thinks," Shikamaru hummed as Itachi stirred, murmuring something to Sasuke. "Before Neji came along, and Sasori got turned, he was the pariah."

"... Yeah." Tenten's voice was barely above a whisper. "He was, wasn't he?" Sasuke, traitor to his family and country.

But what kind of traitor could love so intensely?


As soon as Sasori awoke, he was greeted by the sight of the moon floating high above the sky. Panting slightly and his forehead slicked with sweat, he glanced around, trying to pinpoint his location. Surrounding him were the sleeping bodies of Sakura, Shizune, and Chiyo.

They hadn't killed him.

Why?

Numbly, he looked down at his new arm. It was a hard gray-white, ropey substance, and the area where his normal skin and the new limb met felt sticky and wet. Shoulders shaking lightly, he clenched and unclenched his right fist. Then he let his chakra flow into it. The arm ached and contracted before begrudgingly accepting the flow.

So, what was he now? Human? Monster? Halfway inbetween? Sasori held up his new hand to the moon, the light producing a silvery sheen on the murky white skin. It looked almost like clay, he realized a jolt, and he quickly scouted out Deidara's chakra signal.

Sasori's breath loosened. She was asleep and well, beside Rin. As far as he could tell, everyone was asleep at this time of night. Even Anko and Kakashi were swaying on their feet, and he knew that they would be preparing to swap soon.

They split before they did though, Anko deciding that she needed to take a piss in the bushes while Kakashi seemed like he was going to keel over from boredom and exhaustion at any moment.

Like a ghost in the night, Sasori shot silently out of his bed and went down the hillside, until he stood at the border of a meadow of long grass. The part where the dirt and stones turned into grass appeared to have been sat upon recently. He needed his. He needed to feel the wind on his face, to feel alive again. The futon he'd woken up in had been too constricting. Perhaps it was a trick of the mind, but that did not matter.

I've never seen the moon up this close before. Sasori admired the ethereal body, even if its crescent form was what the enemy's flag bore. Such an eternal, everlasting thing, it was. It occurred to him that he'd never fashioned a puppet after the moon before, or any of the planets, even in his days back in Suna.

A phantom pain panged in his arm, and for a moment, it felt like there was nothing beyond the several cubic centimetres from his shoulder down. The arm he now sported felt weightless and hollow, and it threw his whole balance off.

Still, a new limb was better than no limb at all, wasn't it? Especially since he often made use of his hands in almost everything he did. Whether it be working on his art, practicing taijutsu, or just doing every day things—he was not ashamed to admit that his rather active lifestyle relied heavily on the use of one or both hands.

A breeze swept through the field, sweeping Sasori's hair from his face and cooling his skin. His Akatsuki cloak was back at camp, so he was only dressed in a long-sleeved shirt with its sleeves rolled up and pants from Suna.

He was set on enjoying the night while it lasted when a blip on his chakra radar appeared.

It was an eerily familiar blip, even if it seemed much more docile than before.

Neji hardly got within five feet of him before he turned around, the fingers on his new arm twitching as he tried to form chakra neko-tes around the digits to match his left hand. It put up some resistance, as if it were still getting used to his chakra, but it obeyed in the end.

"You're the Byakugan Monster." It was a statement, not a question. And he wasn't nothing more than a brat, perhaps even younger than Deidara. But while he appeared young and almost like a fine lady, Sasori knew first-hand just how dangerous he could be. "Did you come to finish me off?"

He hadn't noticed Neji anywhere. The man was good at suppressing his chakra, indicating exceptional chakra control. It was practically coded for in his Hyuuga genes.

"Is that what your group called me?" Neji said, frowning slightly in contemplation.

A sneer pulled Sasori's lips back. "Why? Does it upset you, brat? To know that we don't speak of you as highly as your fellow monsters do?" What was he, anyway? What had happened while he was out? He'd been a full-on monster, but now he looked more human than Sasori. Did Sakura have something to do with that?

Had they accepted the Hyuuga into the group?

If that were the case, Sasori would bet his entire fortune of blood money in the Suna Emperor's vault that Hyuuga Hinata had something to do with it.

Neji stepped forward. At the same time, Sasori stepped back.

"Are you afraid of me?" Neji questioned.

"Any sensible, sane man would fear you." Sasori subtracted his step, now closer to the Hyuuga. His pupils dilated as he smiled mirthlessly. "However, I am neither of those things right now."

Neji's white eyes flicked to Sasori's Zetsu arm. "Are you a man? Or a monster?"

Sasori dipped his chin, his expression darkening. "What's the difference? Should you really be asking these questions, Hyuuga? After all..." They were almost nose to nose now. "You're the one who made me like this."

Neji narrowed his eyes. "You—" The Hyuuga managed to put up his arm at the last second and grasp Sasori's wrist. Even so, his chakra claws had caused a major gash to open up on his forearm, and Neji hissed.

"What? Do you have something to say to me, you worthless sack of shit?" Sasori broke his grip, slashing at his face. Neji managed to evade at the last second, hopping backwards with a grimace on his lips. "Why did you even come here?"

"Listen!" Neji snapped. "They can't afford you to run off, so I went. Hatake-san will be here soon, undoubtedly, so—"

"You thought I was running away?" Sasori chuckled darkly, raising his hand so that Neji's blood trickled down his Zetsu arm with agonizing slowness. "You are sorely mistaken, you insolent brat. But now that you're here, why don't I save them the trouble and kill you myself? Maybe I'll even take your arm." Neji got into a defensive stance, and Sasori's expression soured. "Why don't you fight as your true self? Stop hiding under than worthless skin, you worm!"

In the night, the two men exchanged blows, Sasori forcing Neji to defend at rapid speeds. Without his monster reflexes, it was harder for him to keep up, but he still managed.

"What do you want me to say?!" Neji gritted his teeth when Sasori sliced his shoulder open. "That I'm sorry?! I have my regrets, and I know not many things of my time as a Zetsu. But I have a feeling that an apology's not going to work on you."

Such contempt, he spoke his name with. Sasori was unimpressed. Was his maker really that weak? He was so fragile, so human. Sasori could kill him any second from now, and he'd be powerless to stop it.

"How pathetic. To think that someone like you could have done this to me…" Sasori looked down at his arm, allowing Neji a small breather. The Hyuuga was bleeding from multiple cuts and lacerations all over his arms and legs. "Somehow… I feel as if a redemption is in order. Unfortunately for you, it is not yours."

Before Neji could retort, they were joined by a silver-haired man with a single eye.

"So," Kakashi said, "I guess this is Suna's Royal Assassin talking."

"Hatake," Sasori mocked. "Truly, why are you here? Do you really think you can defeat two monsters on your own? Your arrogance is astounding."

"Two monsters? No. But if two humans work together, they can take down a monster." Kakashi glanced warily at Neji, who gave him a disarmingly sincere nod.

A rage he had locked away a long time ago came flooding out, and his morbidly amused features twisted into pure hatred. "You look just like your old man. Always blindly sicking your nose into where it doesn't belong. Honestly, Kakashi, when will you ever learn?" He was going to carve his insignia's into Hatake's face—make sure that he would dishonor his father's memory by bearing the mark of the fiend who had driven him to suicide. And that cowardly Sakumo, taking himself out before Sasori could do the job himself. It infuriated him to no end. Kakashi would pay for the sins of his father, and he would only have Sakumo to blame for his death. "You think that I'm the only monster that walks among you? You have men who would abandon mothers to save themselves," Hitoshi's broad face flashed in his mind, "men who have betrayed everything they stood for," Sasuke's coal gaze stared back in his inner eye, "and beasts who disguise themselves in the skins of your comrades' family to gain favor." Neji recoiled when Sasori turned his condemning stare on him. "The rest all liars, murderers, and thieves. I'm not the only monster. Humans can't kill monsters, Hatake, only other monsters can."

A coldness slid over his gaze, and Sasori watched with wicked glee as Kakashi tossed his humanity aside, ready to put the red-haired man down. Sasori flicked blood from his claw tips. "I suppose this is now a family feud. Hyuuga, you might want to stay out of this."

Neji stared at him silence.

"What, no monologue?" Kakashi quipped when Sasori kept the quiet. He rushed forward, suddenly palming two blades he had kept hidden somewhere on his person. He slashed with frightening brutality and the puppet master, who deflected his blows with his chakra claws. The one on his right hand flickered, almost dissipating, and Sasori frowned in displeasure.

A leg obscured Sasori's vision for a moment, and he bent himself backward to avoid Neji's kick coming in from the side, twisting his body and carefully glancing off Kakashi's twin blades, metal screeching.

As the battle went on, there was a growing pressure in his Zetsu hand, Sasori noticed. It felt like it was going to explode at any minute. Then something did happen, and Sasori could only glimpse Kakashi's eye widening in shock before his arm disassembled and burst forth. It was an action he had seen performed multiple times by multiple monsters, and—

Under the moonlight, two bodies dangled in the air, completely immobilized. Blood dripped into the grass, trailing down stalks like morning dew.

Kakashi clawed at the white, unbreakable vine wrapped around his neck, slowly squeezing. His blades were in the grass, totally unreachable. "Krrhh—!"

Neji was quite possibly in an even worse position, thinner vines digging through parts of his body and out the other side, keeping him suspended in the blood-misted air.

Something inside him folded and snapped, and Sasori jolted, stepping backward. The vines moved along with him, and Kakashi tried to grab his blades off the floor, but to no avail.

Monster. That's what I am now, isn't it? He glanced down at his arm. It's a part of me. It always had been, but he never thought he would live to see that day it became a physical manifestation.

All those people he had killed, all those men, women, and children—their souls squirmed desperately in his new, boneless arm.

In that instance, he figured that eternal life, if he were ever able to obtain it, would be more of a curse than a blessing.

"You're burning. You're on fire but you don't even know it."

"When you feel like you're in so deep, it feels easier to just swim down and drown, no? I have a feeling you're familiar with what I'm saying."

It was like that day in the bridge again, when he'd felt like he was weightless and submerged in the blackest ocean as he fell, Deidara's hand coming loose from his grip and the wind sucking the remaining warmth away.

Fire. Water. You hardly see either of those in the desert. Nobody ever burns, or drowns, or suffocates in smoke or water.

The visible part of Kakashi's face was growing blue, but Sasori hardly registered it. He only saw the looming shadow of the White Fang, and Neji had somehow changed into his beautiful, brown-haired mother, hair falling in front of her face as she became a bloody, unrecognizable mess pinned on the geometric-patterned wall of his bedroom chambers.

Family feud? What family feud? If you want to have a family feud, make sure that the wronged are still alive.

But everybody was dead.

Kakashi gasped for air, and Neji coughed up a gob of blood as the vines released them, sliding painfully out of the latter's body. Kakashi's entire neck area was bruised purple underneath his shirt-mask, and Neji's clothes, lent to him by Itachi, were soaked through with his own fluids.

His mother faded away. So did the White Fang. Only Kakashi and Neji were left. Sasori no Akasuna disappeared, too, this time for the rest of eternity.

Kakashi picked up his blades, but Neji weakly held an arm out in front of him. "Wait." But he could say no more, promptly falling to the ground in a bleeding, unconscious heap.

Warily, Kakashi got off his knees and stalked forward, watching Sasori's white arm reassemble itself until it resembled a limb again. "Do you know who I am?"

"Yes."

"I am not him."

"Hmph. I know that."

"Are you a monster?"

"... Yes."

"Do you want to be?"

There were very few people alive that he cared about enough to embrace his remaining humanity. Chiyo-baa-sama. Friend, comrade, and stoic Itachi. Rin, who was the wife of a man he had come to see as a friend, and, perhaps, her children. Who else? They only made up one hand. He could learn to love Izumi and Izuna. It would not be difficult. And...

Deidara makes two. She was someone he cared for, like Chiyo-baa-sama, and Friend Itachi, and Wife and Children of Obito. He loved none of them—how could he, when he had never really known Obito's family, when Itachi spent as much of his time as he could with his family, because the Uchiha man knew that they might not have enough time; how could he, when Chiyo-baa-sama had taught him how to kill men in a thousand different ways without even batting an eyelash.

But Deidara—

Was someone he had come to respect, not unlike Chiyo-baa-sama, and Itachi, and Rin, as well as love and appreciate, even if their perspectives on art clashed; even if she could be loud, hard, and unforgiving, she knew how to be kind, loyal, and expressed a whole spectrum of human emotions and actions that had been slashed out of him during his time in the Puppet Corps—she spoke to him with little thought, both disparaged and admired him for his art, and he realized, he had learned—

"Do you want to be?" Kakashi repeated.

"No."

He had learned to love her.

Kakashi didn't drop his weapons. "Do I have to kill you?"

"You couldn't kill me even if you tried." There was a gleam in the moonlight, and Kakashi blinked when Sasori pulled out a hidden blade from his still-intact left sleeve.

He turned it on his heart.

Kakashi stilled.

Only monsters can kill monsters. He loved her, but it wasn't enough. Deidara was more human that he would ever be. They'd never addressed it between them—he had never told her about his true nature, but they both knew that deep down, he would never be able to emulate the same humanity she did. "Kakashi-san. You are not your father."

The masked man stepped forward.

"You are human."

He was, too, Kakashi wanted to say as a light rain started—one that would disappear soon—but Sasori would never believe a word of it. "Wait—"

The dagger plunged down—

The air around Kakashi whipped past him as somebody moved—

Sasori didn't move when a blonde blur punched him in the face, flying backward with his back skidding into the dirt. Then a fist grabbed his shirt and held him down, and Deidara stared down at him, exhaling sharply.

"What the fuck," she breathed, "are you doing? Are you even hearing yourself, hm?!" She slammed her forehead into his, as if the pain would shock him out of his stupor. The blade he had held before had clattered somewhere, lost in the long grass. "What a load of bullshit!"

Sasori gazed back at her in disbelief, the pain in his head becoming nothing more than a negligible ache. The rain was plastering her hair to her face, and her chest rose and fell visibly as she glared at him with a ferocity he had only witnessed her displaying toward her enemies. "Deidara—"

"You're not a monster, you damn bastard!" Her head dropped, and he wondered briefly if she was going to headbutt him again. But she merely touched her forehead to his, looking him straight in the eye. Water slid down her nose and dropped on his own as the rain continued to pour. Some distance away, Kakashi was tending to Neji, but Sasori couldn't see him.

All of a sudden, the only world he was capable of seeing was Deidara's will burning desperately in her blue eyes. Mechanically, he reached up, pushing her hair away from her face.

"What kind of monster," she said slowly, her voice wavering ever so slightly, "is anything like you, hm? Monsters don't appreciate art." The next droplet of water that fell on his face was warm, and upon touching his lips, was salty.

I made her cry, he thought numbly. She had already lost Shisui today, Obito before that, and her barely audible sobs were tinged with a hopeless grief. She did not want to have to mourn him, too. A chill enveloped his entire body, and it wasn't just from the cold, compact dirt underneath him, or the equally cold rain. Gradually, fragments of humanity realigned themselves within him, and he closed his eyes, a ghost of a smile on his face.

"Sorry—Deidara."

He allowed her to cry in silent frustration and relief without saying another word, because it was an imperfect, human thing to cry.

To the side, Kakashi continued to stem Neji's bleeding as best he could.

The grass rustled.

And that was the sight that Anko, Itachi, and Gai arrived to.


Back at camp, Sasuke sat next to an exhausted Izumi, holding a sleeping Izuna.

His ears pricked at the sound of someone kicking back their futon.

Hesitantly, Asagi approached him. "May I hold him?"

Eyes watched them from all sides, expecting him to snap at her, and prepared to denounce him as an unrepentant traitor.

But, instead, he held out the child to her, much to her surprise. "Of course."

Asagi smiled. "Thank you... Sasuke-san."

There was a shocked silence around him.

Then Chihiro moved, and with her, a bridge slowly formed over the ravine. "Can I hold him next?"

Chapter Text

 

The steam from the cup in front of him rose, caressing his face. Herbal essence flooded the creases of his lungs, and Sasori breathed outward, clutching his left hand around the cup to steal some warmth from the hot drink. He recognized the blue porcelain of the cup he clutched—it belonged to his grandmother, who sat opposite him, eyelids drooped. She must have packed them into a storage scroll prior to leaving their apartment in Akatsuki.

Chiyo-baa-sama... Sasori closed his eyes, taking a sip. The tea was scalding hot, but he still managed to toss it around in his mouth for almost a minute before swallowing.

She wasn't saying anything.

Are you ashamed of me? Sasori couldn't tear his gaze away from the swirling brew in his cup. Idly, he made a mental list of the ingredients he could smell and taste in the concoction.

In a sky that seemed eons away, the sun slowly rose, and the clouds melted from grey to blue. The fire was still burning, miraculously, though on the verge of dying out.

He had not slept all night.

"Grandson." Sasori snapped to attention, and Chiyo grimaced at the visible bags underneath his eyes. "What happened last night? Why... Why did you attack our comrades? Turn the blade to yourself?" Straight to the point as always, his grandmother.

His grip tightened around his cup. His right arm—the grayish-white Zetsu one—hung uselessly by his side. "Why?" he repeated. It cut a blade through him, to admit to the woman in front of him his greatest failings. "Because I deserved it." One out of two was enough.

"Your arm—"

"Was a catalyst," Sasori cut in, his gaze growing colder.

Chiyo drank her own tea slowly. "You are not a monster. No grandson of mine is anything except human."

You hypocrite, Sasori thought venomously. "Actually, baa-sama, you made sure of the opposite."

In the distance, a bird of the morning began to sing.

"I had no choice."

Sasori smirked grimly. "I know." In a way, he was grateful to her—grateful to her for molding him from a would-be victim to the one who inflicted the abuse. There was a silence, Chiyo's lips thinning as she contemplated. He ignored the pensive look on her face, opting instead to have one ear tuned into the songs of the morning birds. Now that the steam from his tea wasn't in his face, he could smell the crisp mountain air, devoid of any kind of pollution. It was strange, for on the other side, enemy soldiers and monsters lurked.

"I saw them," Sasori said when Chiyo still didn't say anything, an odd combination of sorrow and remorse seeping into his prickly tone. "Hatake Sakumo and my mother. My father was dead straight away, as you surely know—"

Chiyo flinched, and a dark part of Sasori enjoyed her pain.

"—but my mother managed to survive having a kunai in her neck." A pause. "Initially."

"Sasori—"

"He wanted to punish me. So he beat her. Made me watch." Calmly, Sasori sipped his tea, as if he wasn't discussing the torture and subsequent murder of the woman who had given birth to him. His heart twisted with every word, but he kept going. "He was crying the whole time. I can see why our Hatake would think that that man could be capable of humanity. I think..." Another sip. "He was disgusted with himself, even as he committed the act. It was watching humanity struggle against a monster; a monster's foot stamping on a human face. He couldn't live with what he had done.

"Last night..." Sasori paused again, unsure of how to really continue. "It was like seeing the second coming of the White Fang. Unfortunately, the Hyuuga happened to have hair that share almost the exact shade of brown as my mother's." He forced the bitter, icy rage into his voice, relishing as Chiyo crumpled under his words, a shock in her eyes that he despised. Quietly, he added, "It won't happen again."

"I didn't know." The words were weak and they both knew it. Sasori had never truly told her of the events that had unfolded that day, and she hadn't been part of the crew that cleaned up the bodies, but so what?

Deep down, he knew that his grandmother wasn't to shoulder the full blame. But he would not regret his sharp tongue right now. Never.

She was not blameless. Never had been.

And he made sure to let her know.

In the end, it was a combination of unfortunate factors. The acolyte who had slaughtered the Empress' male concubines, the threat of being conscripted into a harem of courtesans, Chiyo's meddling, Hatake's fractured mind—

Chiyo stood abruptly, knocking over her tea on the rock. It stained the stone a darker hue. Her eyes were an endless pool of sorrow, and she breathed out and lowered herself again. Then she bowed her head slightly. "I'm sorry. For everything you've ever had to endure."

"... Baa-sama."

The birds continued their songs as the sun peaked.

Sasori stared at her hunched form, a flicker of regret in his eyes. "Get up, baa-sama," he said gruffly, his voice heavy with an old bereavement. As she rose, wavering, Sasori turned his gaze to the rising sun.

A new dawn, to wash away last night's horrors.


Deidara awoke to a gentle hand shaking her. Izumi was kneeling over her, a half-smile on her face that barely reached her eyes. But she was looking noticeably less tired, which was what drove Deidara to blink to the sleep from her eyes.

"Morning, sunshine," Izumi said wryly, and Deidara's heart ached. She smiled anyway. Or tried to. But it was not Izumi's fault—not her fault that she could never perfect the same tone as Shisui when she said the words. "Ready to greet the day? We're leaving soon." The half-smile disappeared. "It was a long night for you. I wish you could rest more, but Konohagakure is just days away."

Groggily, Deidara sat up. "How long have we been out here, hm?" It felt like an eternity since that had left Akatsuki. It occurred to her, suddenly, that they were approaching the borders of Amegakure as well. Her body felt dirty, but there was no river or lake around. Even if there was, it'd be too cold to bathe in, anyway, so the point was moot. She looked around. Where's Danna? Relief entered her chest when she spotted his unmistakable red head on the other side of the fire, which had been reduced to a pile of ashes on stone.

"Nearly a month," answered Izumi.

A month, huh? Her bones felt old and weary as she stood, rolling up her futon. She'd been feeling like the Shinigami had sliced part of her soul out of her body for a while. There was a gaping hole in her spirit, one that grew larger every time it tried to heal. First, Obito, then Hitomi and Ino—she'd realized long ago that she was partially responsible for the extinction of the Yamanaka Clan; perhaps they had distant cousins in Konoha, but that didn't matter—and then Shisui. She wasn't unaware of the wispy, waif-like frame she now had, compared to the toned, muscular body she had had before the war. It felt more prominent than ever to her; her mind and body had been shaken to the extreme, and she wasn't sure what she would do if she lost anyone else.

As she went over to Hitoshi and Gai, who were both talking in muted tones as the latter sealed away bedroll after bedroll, Deidara discretely beheld Izumi's side profile. She didn't want her die. She was sure she'd go to hell for even thinking of it, but if she had to choose between Rin and Izumi, both of whom were her most trusted female companions, she would always choose the Uchiha-born woman.

And to hell she would go, because there was yet another person who she would choose above all.

"You're looking much better today," Izumi remarked to Hitoshi after acknowledging Gai, who sealed away Deidara's futon.

Deidara wasn't sure what she missed, but she didn't particular care for Hitoshi. "Not cowering behind someone shorter than you, for once, un," Deidara said disparagingly. She expected him to snap some insult at her like a mutt, but he merely rolled his eyes.

"Deidara!" admonished Izumi, though there was no real reprimand in her voice.

"I get it, I'm a cowardly asshole," Hitoshi said with a scowl that could match Sasuke's. "That doesn't mean I'm that much of a useless sack of shit." It was true, if only to the most minimal extent. With his big muscles, Hitoshi could carry the tired and the elderly, and he had some experience in hunting. What he'd been prior to all of these events, Deidara didn't know. But she didn't need to ask, as Hitoshi went on, "Before Tsuki invaded, I was a shoemaker in my ma's shop. The best of the best, I dare say, but that doesn't mean I didn't pick up some skills in my downtime. Ma's dead now, but I don't really care."

Deidara raised her eyebrows. "Really, now?"

Hitoshi seemed to reconsider his words for a second before shaking his head with conviction. "No. If she weren't my mother, I would have forgotten her by now." A hunched figure approached them, and the big man recoiled. "I thought I told you to rest! Everything's still getting packed, we're not going straight away."

Deidara and Izumi turned their heads, and the former's eyes widened slightly. Is... Is that Yukari? The teenage girl, formerly bright and domineering even in the face of death and destruction, now looked like death warmed over. Her eyes had that sunken in appearance, her brow and cheekbones protruding from her skin. It was clear she hadn't eaten in a long while. Did... nobody care? She glanced over to where Shizune was checking up on Asagi's mother's cough, and it dawned on her. No, of course not. Yukari was still ill, yes, but she simply wasn't a priority. She was an orphan, had been even before the war, just like Naruto; but the difference between them was that Yukari had no personal connections to anyone here. Deidara had even forgotten about her existence prior to this moment. It filled her with shame, but she pushed it away. She only had Sawako. And now Sawako was dead, because Deidara hadn't gotten to her fast enough, but if she had to be honest with herself, she was glad, in the most horrible way, that it'd been Sawako and not her. Without her quiet twin, however, Yukari had nobody left. Hitoshi did, however, behold the girl with some sort of gruff, impatient kindness.

Yukari muttered something under her breath, and Deidara knew it wasn't for her ears, or Izumi's. So, leaving Gai and Hitoshi behind, the former in the midst of finishing up the seal, she took Izumi away.

A wailing sounded. Izuna. Izumi sighed. "I think Itachi needs some help. I'll see you later, Deidara?" She backpedaled, and Deidara halfheartedly raised a hand.

"Yeah, see you."

Around her was the pinnacle of an organized chaos. Shikamaru, and Itachi were studying the map over Shikaku's shoulder, the Nara head pointing to the north with a hopeful yet grim smile on his sharp features. Itsuki, Shogo, and Chihiro appeared to be playing a short game of tag to entertain themselves before they had to leave. Deidara floated about, looking for something to do. Sasori sat at the forefront of her mind, but she wasn't sure if she wanted to approach him yet. Not after last night's happenings. She'd have to—

"Deidara-nee!" Daichi skidded up to her, the heels of his worn shoes chafing the stone. "Have you seen Hikari?!" The boy was frantic, eyes wide and perhaps a little tear-filled. "I can't find her anywhere. Okaa-chan went to look for her, but she hasn't come back either!"

While initially dismissive of his concerns, Deidara straightened at the mention of Rin. "Are you serious?" She took a breath. "Stay here, Daichi. I'm sure they're fine. Where did you see Rin go, hm?" Daichi pointed toward the treeline to the west. "Tell Itachi where I'm going."

"Okay. Please find them!"

To her relief, Deidara had barely left the confines of their camp before spotting Rin appearing over a small hill, holding Hikari's hand. Behind her trailed Itsuki, Shogo, and Chihiro. They must have run off while Deidara wasn't looking.

"Is anyone hurt?" Deidara demanded as she stalked up to them.

Rin shook her head. "Hikari seems a little shaken, but fine."

Chihiro and Shogo looked vaguely confused, while Itsuki, paler than Deidara had ever seen him, had the most sour expression on his face. His tubby arms were crossed across his reduced belly, and the short, wispy hairs that made up his fringe stuck to his forehead with sweat.

"Did anything happen?" Rin asked Hikari firmly. Deidara suspected that it wasn't the first time that she had asked that. "Hikari-chan?"

"It's nothing, okaa-chan," she mumbled, not meeting her mother's gaze.

Rin frowned. "Hikari..." She sighed. "Honey, if something happened, you need to tell me. I can tell you're upset about something."

Hikari closed her eyes. "It's nothing, okaa-chan," she repeated.

As the group of children and women walked back to the heart of the camp, where everyone was about to leave, Daichi caught sight of them and ran to Hikari and his mother. As Rin led her children away, Deidara turned to Chihiro.

"What's up with her, hm?" the blonde asked the little orphan. I've never seen Hikari behave like that before. And she's not one to keep secrets either. "Chihiro?"

"Why can't you just leave her alone?" Itsuki said hotly before storming off.

Deidara stared after him, bemused. The hell is his problem?

Chihiro gave Deidara an apologetic glance. "Sorry about him. We were playing tag, and we got a little ahead of ourselves..." Flushing, she scuffed her foot on the ground, and Deidara gave her a wry grin. "Itsuki disappeared somewhere and Hikari-chan chased after him." She dropped her voice to a whisper. "He said he accidentally scratched himself on a stick and made Hikari-chan not tell anyone who wasn't his friend. Itsuki likes to act tough, I think."

"Boys." Deidara rolled her eyes. "I swear, it's always an inflated ego with them, hm." Not that she had any room to talk, but Chihiro wouldn't call her out for being a hypocrite.

Everything seemed to be going well, until Hanabi yanked Hinata away from Neji after the male Hyuuga got too close. Hinata's little sister pulled her lips back into a snarl, an animalistic growl rising in the back of her throat. Neji had been healed last night, but the majority of his body was covered in bandages. Sakura had healed most of the damage, but a lot of her chakra had been drained thanks to her having to carefully disinfect and sew up each laceration, so his new skin wasn't as thick as it should be. "Don't come near her." Hanabi's voice trembled with rage and paranoia. "You think that I don't remember how you treated her? And then you disappear for months and come back like that!"

People cringed at the reminder of Neji, and the Hyuuga was soon on the receiving end of suspicious glares.

"What do you suggest we do?" Gai asked Itachi. "Should we leave him, or bring him along?"

Or kill him, Deidara added silently, her hands clenching at her sides.

"That wouldn't be wise," Shikaku answered instead, frowning contemplatively. "Do you have any idea how big of a breakthrough his existence is? If we bring him to Konoha, their scientists and medics might be able to find an effective cure for the monsterization process." He dipped his chin to Sakura in acknowledgement, and she nodded back.

"I disagree," Anko said flatly. "We'd be risking the safety of the people if we don't kill him now. You want to set him loose in society? Trust me, Shikaku, bad idea. If Sakura's medicine is capable of stopping Sasori from going off the deep end, then she'll be able to find another one with better technology. Without the monster."

"He'd be restrained," Kakashi pointed out.

"Why don't we take a vote?" Chiyo suggested.

And so a vote was cast, those for exiling or killing Neji separating themselves from those who were against.

Deidara found herself nestled between Kisame and Masami, watching as the younger members of their group deliberated. What was taking so long? She'd already debated the pros and cons of prolonging Neji's livelihood, and had come to the same conclusion as Anko, though not with as much resolve as she would have liked. Shikaku had a good point—if Neji were to be studied, a cure for the monster disease could be cured.

Her eyes narrowed when the youths finally sorted themselves out, and did a head count.

Who's 'against'? Hinata, unsurprisingly. Tenten. I didn't expect that. Shikamaru, Shikaku, and Sakura and Shizune. Naruto and his gang of twelve year olds. Should they be allowed to vote? Hanabi's 'against', but she doesn't look happy about it. Asagi, her mother, Shogo... She removed the children from her head. Even so, there were more people than she had expected on the 'against' side.

But even then, 'for' won out.

Neji watched them carry out their affairs with silence, his moon-like eyes observing each and every one of them carefully. There was a crease in his brow, and he was clearly upset, but he did not voice his distress. As if he knew that would denounce any credibility he had.

"So, I guess we're leaving him," Chihiro said, a little sadly.

I hope he starves, Deidara thought bitterly. "Let's just go, hm. If he follows us... we'll kill him."

A silent, morbid agreement hung heavily in the air.

"No," Hinata protested. "Please, don't do this. Please r-reconsider."

"Nope, too late!" Anko grinned maliciously. "If you want to keep defending him, then fine, but don't drag the rest of us into it. Some of us actually want to get to Konoha in one piece."

"He did help Kakashi wrangle Sasori back under control," Shikamaru stated, and Deidara stiffened.

"Yes, that was... unfortunate," Itachi said, treading delicately over his words, noticing Deidara's reaction. He tried not to let his facade crumble away more than it already had, and only Izumi taking his bloodstained hand and squeezing kept him from shattering. "But that doesn't mean anything, in the end." Shisui's death was fresh in his mind, and his Sharingan made sure that he would never forget what had happened.

Biting her lip, Hinata looked at Neji, who was standing with his head slightly bowed. "Neji-nii," she said, more serious than ever, "you have to tell them what you told me!"

Eyebrows were raised, and Neji's default frown deepened.

"Tell us what, exactly?" drawled Sasori, and if tensions hadn't been running high before, they certainly were now. Sasori pushed past the people in front of him, stepping up to Neji and looking him straight in the eye. The Hyuuga boy had straightened by now, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down as he regarded Sasori with an equally cold stare.

Hanabi made an unpleasant noise from the back of her throat. "Come clean already!" she barked at Neji, her lips pulling back into a snarl. "I would have told them anyway, so it doesn't matter."

Neji took a deep breath, and Sasori drew back a little, eyes narrowing. "We are not alone in these woods."

Yeah, no shit, Deidara thought sardonically. But she waited for him to continue anyway, and he didn't let her down.

"Between Konoha and where we are now," Neji went on, enunciating each word clearly. "There lies a camp of over one hundred strong." Ignoring gasps and sharp intakes of breaths, he added, "I've only heard rumors from my... commander. My... group was to head there and add to their ranks once we..." He looked around, trailing off.

"What." Anko stared at him, brows raised and looking outraged. "Is... Is this your idea of a joke?" A muscle in her face twitched, making her look almost manical. "Don't fuck around with us. I'll—"

They never got to find out what Anko would do, as at that moment, a group of birds burst out of the tree, wriggling in the air before falling out of the sky in one grotesque, feathery heap. They were bleeding black pus from all of their orifices, and everyone instinctively stepped away. The smell of rotting infection instantly flooded their nostrils.

Deidara swore. When she tore her gaze away from the birds, she found herself looking into Neji's pale, milky eyes.

"Do you believe me now?" said the Hyuuga boy. He looked north-west. "They know we're here. If you want any hope of getting to Konoha's walls in one piece... you'll need to strike first."


They made good time, and had traveled almost half the distance to Konohagakure from the mountain, before Neji recommended they stop. Immediately after setting up a small camp in a discreet area, their swiftest members, Kakashi and Itachi, set off to the west with Neji to search for the elusive monsters' base. No—Zetsu—that was what they were called. It meant nothing to them, yet everything at the same time.

"We'll have to tough it out with rations tonight," Izumi was saying to Gai. A few metres away, Rin was clutching a calm Izuna to her breast. Izumi's plain cheongsam, once whole, was dirty and worn, and she had her sleeves rolled up to reveal too-skinny forearms.

"Right," said Gai, "We can't afford to send anyone out looking for food, especially..." He glanced to the right, past the flowing brook and to a copse of trees. "Lee!" He whipped around to his mini-me. "You and Tenten start handing out the rations! Give the largest portions to..." Gai, in a moment of unusual solemnness, listed off the people who needed to eat the most, and Lee dutifully recruited Tenten to carry out Gai's orders.

A fire was promptly made as well. Warmth was needed, and whether they made one or not made no difference to the monsters lurking in the west—they would be able to smell them out with or without smoke and light.

None of them even considered the possibility of there being any enemy soldiers around. They were too close to Konoha, and an even deadlier foe was ever present.

Around the crackle of the fire, Deidara sat cross-legged with her back against the thick, knotted trunk of an alder tree. She leaned into the wood with her arms folded across her chest, trying to collect as much warmth as possible from her position. A particularly cold breeze caressed her cheek, and she closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she saw Sasuke across the fire, holding up Izuna with a contemplative frown on his face. He didn't seem to be hearing Rin's explanation on changing diapers until the brown-haired woman smacked him across the back of the head. It would have been comical, Deidara mused, had Rin's expression not been genuinely vexed. She spoke to him without kindness, without the gentleness that Deidara had known her for. She spoke to him only for Izuna's benefit.

"Deidara-nee..." Deidara had seen her coming from the right. Hikari scuffed her feet for a while before plopping down in Deidara's lap, her back pressing into the blonde's chest.

"Hey, Hikari-chan." Deidara undid her hair so that brown locks cascaded down her back. "Good grief, your hair's grown so long, hm. What a pain."

"But your hair's even longer," Hikari replied smartly.

Above them, the clouds parted to reveal the moon as Deidara chuckled. "Yeah, and it's an absolute mess." She passed her hand through her hair, grimacing at the dirty, oily feeling. Hikari hummed as Deidara left her own hair alone and started to finger-brush hers.

"Can you make it like yours?" the little girl asked.

"Sure, but you have to tell me what happened today while I do it." Placing the hair-tie between her lips, Deidara continued to groom Hikari's hair, parting the top layer from the bottom layer.

"Oh... You mean with Itsuki-kun?"

"Oh, was that his name?" The hair-tie somehow managed to stay in her mouth.

"Deidara-nee! That's rude!" After some huffing on Hikari's part, which Deidara strongly suspected was meant to stall, the girl reluctantly began to recount the events of that morning. "Everybody was packing up and telling us not to get in the way, so Itsuki-kun said it would be more fun to play in the nearby trees."

Deidara made a noncommittal noise. "Uh huh. Keep going..." She gathered up the top layer of Hikari's hair in a ponytail and held it in place with one hand, using the other to grab the hair-tie.

Hikari quietened, unsure of how to continue. "Aniki didn't want me to go but I managed to lose him. Chihiro-chan came with us, so I thought it was okay, since she knows how to fight a little." The best Chihiro could do was throw kunai, but Deidara held her tongue. "Shogo-kun became 'it', and we all ran in different directions." She bit her lip. "That's all."

Deidara frowned. "Are you sure?" In her lap, Hikari stilled eerily, and Deidara was sure that if she could see the girl's face, it would be white with fear. "Hikari-chan, what did he say to you, hm?" She was vaguely aware of another figure leaning against the side of the tree, just out of Deidara's periphery, and the smell of food wafted up her nostrils.

"Nothing. He didn't say anything," Hikari stressed, shaking her head. Deidara waited for her to continue, finishing up the ponytail. She divided half of her attention to the loose bottom layer of her hair, untangling knots with deft fingers. "When I found him, he..." She faltered in time with Deidara's working hands. "He looked at me. He was so mad. I knew he didn't want me to tell anyone what happened. That he fell over and got scratched."

"By a stick," Deidara said, admiring her handiwork. She'd been careful not to let her mouth-tongues touch any air.

"A stick?" Hikari looked confused. "Well, that's what Chihiro-chan thought, but Itsuki-kun only mumbled something, so we don't really know if it was a stick or not."

Deidara blinked slowly before frowning. "Then what do you think it was, hm?"

Hikari's shoulders went up, then down, in a small shrug. "It could have been anything. Does it really matter? But he was really scared about not letting people know. It's okay to be scared, but Itsuki always likes to be brave..."

"Huh." Deidara leaned into the alder tree. "Okay, I'm done. Why don't you go show your mother?"

Hikari touched the back of her hair, gasping lightly when she felt the ponytail. "Okay. Thank you!" In the firelight, her eyes glowed in pleasure, but there was a lingering darkness that Deidara couldn't quite place. When Hikari was gone, Deidara tilted her chin upward, feeling her ponytail get squashed between her head and the tree trunk. "You can come out now."

Sasori melted from the shadows, standing close to Deidara. He was holding a can of... something. He then sat, holding out the can to Deidara as some kind of offering.

"Was it really just a stick?" Sasori mused as Deidara took the can, her dirt-covered fingers scooping up some meat. She held his stare, hardly wavering, before looking forward instead.

"Doubt it. But he's still alive, right? His skin isn't peeling away or anything."

He nodded shortly, using his left arm to reach across for the can. Wasn't that inconvenient? Deidara wondered briefly. He'd be better off using his right arm—

Her eyes landed on the white Zetsu arm, long, monstrous fingers clinging to the grass as he ate.

"Sorry," Sasori said dryly, not sounding sorry at all. "Last night would have been a shock to you."

Deidara's hands clenched, and her throat was dry as she enunciated, "Why?" The rest of the question hung in the air.

He exhaled. "There's a lot of things you don't know."

"Maybe, but there's one thing I do know." Underneath the moon's watchful gaze, Deidara whipped her head around to look him in the eye, the firelight flickering in his brown pupils. "You're a lot of things, Danna, but you aren't a monster."

"A lot of people would say otherwise."

Her lips quirked upward, almost sadly. "They don't know what they're talking about, hm... Yeah, so what if I don't know what kinds of moles you have in weird places?"

Sasori almost smiled. Almost. "That's not what I—"

"Bad analogy aside, I know you, Danna. Even if it's not all of you, the part that I do know, no matter how minuscule..." Her eyes lowered before she closed them, a crease appearing in her brow as she frowned. "It's enough to assure me that you aren't a bad person."

For a few seconds, Sasori didn't say anything, merely stared at her side profile. The wind blew through the trees, whispering their sorrows and regrets for all to be heard. Across the bonfire, Sasuke gave them a quick glance. "You know, brat," Sasori eventually said, "You're awfully optimistic about me." She opened her mouth to retort, but he went on, "That's not so bad."

"That's it?" she demanded after giving him an incredulous glance. "You're not gonna say something disparaging?"

"Hmph. Look at me." Sasori held out his arm. "Do you really think I have any room to judge?" He turned away, making eye contact with Chiyo, who was sitting some distance behind Sasuke. "We all have our faults, Deidara. I think mine are a lot worse than yours."

The only noise that could be heard then besides the backdrop of crackling fire and murmuring voices was the wet slide of Deidara's oil-smeared finger against the bottom of the can. The label of the can was faded, but if one looked close enough, they would be able to tell that it was luncheon meat.

"We do, don't we?" she said finally. "But I don't really care about that, yeah." She slid down the tree trunk, putting her hands behind her head and gazing up at the night sky. There was looming sadness in her eyes, and Sasori let out a small, barely audible sigh as he turned his eyes up at the heavens as well. Her eyes were fluttering open and shut, he noticed, and if the dark circles around her eyes were any indication, she was about to doze off any moment. Her breathing evened out as she slumped against him, her head propped on his shoulder. Her warm body was a welcome feeling, and the crown of her head fit snugly in the crook of his neck. There was no uncertainty on the lines of her silhouette, and he said nothing of it, allowing the intimate silence speak for itself.

The warmth soon enveloped his body, and he found himself drifting off, too, but he quickly snapped himself out of his sleep induced stupor when the trees rustled, and Kakashi, Itachi, and Neji reappeared, all of them looking grim.

Beside him, Deidara stirred. "Danna?"

"Get up, Deidara." He had a feeling that he wasn't going to like what the scouts were about to say.

She awoke fully almost instantly, a consequence that had arisen from recent events. Her blue eyes were alert, almost glowing in the dark. "What? They're back?" Deidara got up and stretched just as Sasori patted down the back of his garb to brush off any grass and dirt.

Everybody seemed to be gravitating naturally toward where the three men stood, and Sasori and Deidara were no exception. A noticeably wider berth was given to the pair—or, rather, Sasori—but neither of them cared enough to address it. Whatever animosity and trust issues that were still present among the group would have to be abolished soon, but now wasn't the time.

"How many?" Hitoshi asked, sweat beading on his temple despite the evening chill. He clenched and unclenched his large, meaty hands periodically.

And Itachi, looking more world-weary than ever, coughed abruptly and replied, "Over three hundred strong."

It wasn't just a rock in their stomachs now.

It was a ball of ice.

"That can't be right," whispered Hinata, almost like she was trying to convince herself. She probably was.

"I'm sorry, Hinata-sama," said Neji, but she dismissed his apology, telling him that it was all right.

"The camp is large," reported Kakashi, drawing a map in the dirt with a stick he had acquired from nearby. "Located in a gully, here," he used his stick to mark the camp with a triangular symbol, "and stretches up until here."

"Wait," Anko interrupted, eyes widening in disbelief. "That puts them almost directly in between us and Konoha." For the first time, she allowed herself to be almost completely vulnerable. "Oh, are you serious?" She clutched the bridge of her nose. "This is bullshit..."

"What else did you find?" Shikaku inquired, his mind leaping ahead to hypothetical situations and solutions.

"Yes, a Tsukigakure supply post not far from here, but it seems to be freshly occupied," answered Kakashi.

"Freshly occupied?" Sasori echoed. "Elaborate, Hatake-san."

"I mean that there are still fresh bodies outside, and you could smell the blood from miles away. There were at least ten monsters in the surrounding perimeter."

"Zetsu," Neji put in helpfully, "They are called Zetsu, named after their progenitor."

"That was very likely the last enemy post between Ame and Konoha," Itachi put in softly. "Tell me, Shikaku, what is the latest form of weaponry that was developed between the last war and the one being waged right now?"

"Explosives," Deidara answered out of turn. She crossed her arms, and everybody paid attention, for she was an expert in this subject. "The most effective are ones that use chakra to detonate. My clay is one such material, and the other is..." She glanced knowingly at Shikaku, almost as if she were apologizing for stealing the spotlight.

The elder Nara surmised, "TNT. Itachi, you think that they have TNT stores in that supply post?"

"It was very well hidden," Kakashi said abruptly. "We wouldn't have found it if it wasn't for the blood, and the high density of Zetsu monsters outside of the camp. I wouldn't be surprised if we came across something as deadly as explosives. And this close to Konoha as well?"

Shikaku nodded in agreement. "Yes, it does seem like too much of a coincidence..."

"Let's not forget that this is just an assumption," Sasuke intoned, the default frown on his face more pronounced than ever. "Are we really going to risk our lives for supplies that we don't even know are there or not? And, hypothetically, if we do pull through and get our hands on TNT, what exactly are we going to do with it?" The narrowing of his eyes showed that he already had some idea.

"It's simple," Itachi said. His chin lowered, and the fire crackling in front of him was reflected in his dark orbs, sending shivers down spines. "We're going to make their world burn."


No one could sleep well that night. Plotting, planning, arguing—under the stars was a flurry of excitement, hot tempers, and stubbornness, traits that had helped them all survive this far.

First and foremost, it was an adult thing. Which left the kids relatively in the dark, left to their own devices.

In the early morning, in their own little corner around the steadily burning fire, those kids were entertaining themselves, talking quietly. Of course, they couldn't be allowed to be completely left alone, so Masami, Itsuki's mother, Shogo's grandmother, and Yukari sat with them, staying mostly quiet. Shogo's grandmother was almost completely silent as she was sleeping in her family's shared futon, her breathing ragged. Sakura had checked her over an hour ago. The sickness was still prevalent in the old woman, as it was with Itachi, and Yukari. The latter's cough was undoubtedly worse.

All Yukari had were the clothes on her back and a blanket that was far too thin to fight the cold away. She was almost all skin-and-bones now, unable to keep down much food. Her face was gaunt, and her eyeballs had practically receded into the bony sockets. She was murmuring quietly to herself, and Masami was trying her best not to look uncomfortable, making small talk with Itsuki's mother, Mikoko.

Then Yukari coughed, and Itsuki shirked away, clutching his hand.

"Cover your mouth!" Mikoko whirled on the girl almost instantly. "I don't want you infecting my son again when he's just recovering." She tried to draw him into a hug, but Itsuki managed to get away. "Son?"

"Can we go play?" Itsuki said loudly, standing up. "I'm bored."

Yukari's head snapped upward, her eyes haunted, but Mikoko talked over whatever she'd been about to say. "Don't go far, sweetie. Make sure that you can still see the smoke and the river."

"I'll look after them," Chihiro promised, helping Shogo up.

"Um, are you sure, lady?" Moegi asked Mikoko. "Isn't it dangerous?"

Udon placed a finger on his chin. "I'm not gonna play, but I doubt there are any Zetsu close by. And even if there were, we have people to defend us. And they're pretty good at their job."

"Tell that to all the people that died," Daichi said bitterly.

"None of that!" Mikoko glared at Daichi, though she checked around the perimeter for Rin before scolding him. She was with Deidara, talking seriously about something. Nearby, Asagi was scrubbing her hands clean in the river to help Shizune with something.

"I want to go," Hikari said, her voice barely a whisper. The hairstyle that Deidara had put her hair into last night had been changed back to her original short ponytail.

"What?!" Daichi shouted, moving so that he was halfway between standing and sitting. "No way, imouto! In fact, none of you should be going."

"Mikoko said it was fine," Masami said, her voice slightly muffled by her swollen cheek. "If you want, I can come with you?"

"Oh, Masami, do stay," Mikoko insisted, but Masami was a bit more careful about leaving the kids by themselves than her, and declined.

Having an adult there did little to convince Daichi of Hikari's safety, but he would have to physically restrain his little sister to keep her from going. So, sighing, he agreed to accompany them, ready to whisk his sister away at the first sign of danger.

So off they went, Masami the only adult with a group of children: Chihiro, Shogo, Daichi and Hikari, and, of course, Itsuki. Konohamaru had wanted to attend, but Moegi and Udon both convinced him to stay, taking him by either arm and dragging him down. He pouted, but quickly started a game with his pals to pass the time.

In spite of the cold, crisp morning air, Daichi felt like something was wrong about the environment.

"We should go back," he told them as they stepped over a fallen tree. "Masami-san!"

"No!" barked Itsuki, his eyes wide and he whirled around. "I said I want to play!"

Daichi recoiled at the sheer panic and desperation in his tone. "Dude, what's your problem?" He marched right up to the younger boy and shoved him in the chest, Hikari's protests falling on deaf ears.

"Don't fight," reprimanded Masami. "Why don't we do something that we can all agree on?"

No, you airhead! Daichi wanted to shout. Can't you see anything wrong about this?! His fingers twitched, and he grabbed Hikari. "Come on, we're leaving."

"No!" Hikari snapped. "Itsuki-kun...! He...!"

"Itsuki?" Chihiro's uncertain voice broke the argument. The boy in question had their back facing to them, and he seemed to be trembling from the cold.

"W-What?" Even his voice shook.

"What game do you wanna play?" Shogo didn't really know what else to say.

"What about we just explore?" Masami tried to smile. "Come on, let's walk."

"I'm not going back," Hikari whispered harshly to her brother. The fact that she sounded wide awake chilled Daichi to the bone, and he tightened his grip on his sister's wrist. "Aniki, please."

"Why do we need to be here, huh?" Daichi hissed back, ducking his head when he saw Masami's cat-like gaze slide over to him.

"I think there's something wrong with Itsuki-kun, and I have to be there with him."

"No you don't."

"Yes! I do!"

They got to a huge log that was far too large to scale, and that was the end of their expedition. Masami addressed them all, "Alright, children, we should all go back now, so please—"

Itsuki suddenly smashed his face into the log, bone crunching against bark, and Masami shrieked.

Chihiro's eyes widened as blood began to trickle from the space between his face and the bark. Slowly, she reached her hand out to tap his shoulder. "Itsuki?"

A low moan echoed through the forest, as if the very trees were creaking around them.

Hikari had gone completely white, and while her mouth moved up and down, sound was barely coming out. "No... I thought... was... wrong... It wasn't a stick after all... I thought I dreamed it up..."

"Imouto?" Daichi demanded. "What's going on?!"

Birds burst through the trees, cawing a discordant song just as Masami pulled Chihiro out of Itsuki's range, the boy having turned around and snapped—literally snapped his jaws—at where Chihiro's nose had been. The woman and the girl tumbled backward, sending grass flying up in tufts.

Itsuki let loose a growl deep in his throat, black bleeding into his eyes. Spittle flew from between his growing teeth, and his hair was plastered to his face in sweat.

"Wait!" Hikari had thrown herself between the hunched-over Itsuki and the fallen Chihiro and Masami. "Itsuki, it's me..." She swallowed a lump in her throat. There was a bruise already starting to form on her wrist from her when she had broken free of her brother's iron grip. "It's me, Hikari-chan. You... Do you remember me?"

Itsuki fixed his beady black eyes on the little girl's form.

"IMOUTO!" Daichi screamed, lunging forward. "GET BACK!"

Itsuki snarled, clutching his head, and suddenly the blackness bled out of one eye and the corresponding side of his face drooped. "Hikari-chan? Am I..." Tears flowed out of his human eye. "Am I gonna die?" His voice darkened then, and Hikari took one step back, walking straight back into Masami and Chihiro, who were now standing, before Daichi pulled her backward even further. "Please," Itsuki's voice trembled, "I don't wanna die. I don't wanna. If I go back, they'll kill me. They'll kill me. Shogo!"

The boy jumped at his name being called.

"Shogo, you're gonna save me, right?" Itsuki's eye started to blacken again, blood continuing to trickle from his misshapen nose. He hid the top half of his face behind his hands and smiled; it was a horrible thing, lined with fear and desperation. Then his fingers parted to reveal fully darkened scleras. "Right?"

The young boy balked, too shocked to even cry at the sight of his best friend in such a state. "It-Itsuki..."

Daichi grabbed Hikari's hand then, yelling at the top of his lungs, "RUN!"

Masami didn't need to be told twice, completely forgetting about the kids as she sprinted back the way they came from. The children were close behind, Daichi dragging Hikari along, and Chihiro doing the same for Shogo, who was still trying to regain his bearings after going into shock.

Roaring, Itsuki lunged after them, not even wincing as his shoulder thudded painfully against a particularly hard tree after turning a sharp corner.

"Chihiro," Daichi panted as he let Hikari pull in front of him, the girl sobbing. "He's gaining on us. Do you have any kunai?!"

"Y-Yeah, three!"

"Give one to me!"

The girl fumbled, but managed to pass one to him, gripping the other two tightly. "Daichi... what are you doing?" Chihiro gasped as Daichi skidded a stop, turning around with that kunai in his hand just as Itsuki jumped over a fallen tree. The others had vanished into the trees, not even looking back. "Daichi! What—"

"Am I doing?" Daichi finished. He shifted his stance into one that had hadn't used in a very, very long time, holding out the kunai in front of him. Itsuki howled as he crouched on the log, fully gone. He tried to smirk reassuringly, but his false confidence was detracted by the chronic trembling of his entire form. It's the same reason as why I started learning kenjutsu under that man... "I'm going to protect my imouto. Even if it kills me."


A flock of birds flew past, and Rin glanced skyward, a niggling feeling in the back of her mind. When Mikoko, with her shifty, conniving eyes, had told her that Masami had taken some of the kids to go collect water a bit further down the river, that feeling had began to make itself known.

Deidara eyed her. "Rin? What's wrong?"

"I..." She stepped backward.

Suddenly, there was a piercing scream from the foliage.

Hikari?!

Her veins were ice, but her body felt as light as a feather in that moment.

"I have to go!"

 

Chapter Text

"You're not a bad man, Kisame-sensei. Everybody keeps calling you a monster, but you're not."

A large palm descended on her head, and she squeezed her eyes shut as the shark-man ruffled her hair, making it messier than it already was. "You're gonna make me cry, kiddo. There's a part of me that never wants you to change."

"I don't want to change either," Chihiro admitted.

"But you will." He sounded resigned, and it made Chihiro's heart explode with love. She almost threw her arms around his large frame. "You are already. You've seen how shitty this world is, kid. It's inevitable... that you're going to have to do nasty things to keep yourself alive."

"Like...?" She knew the answer already.

"You know what I'm talking about, kid."

Yes, she did.

"Now let's stop wasting time. Kunai aren't only for throwing, you know. When you slash someone with it, it'll hurt like a bitch."


"I'm going to protect my imouto, even if it kills me."

Chihiro did a double-take. "Daichi...!" What can I do? I can't leave him to face a monster by himself. She took a deep breath. "Then I guess I'm gonna make sure that you return to see her." Think of everything Kisame-sensei's taught me. The two kunai shifted in her hand, metal clinking as she trembled uncontrollably. She'd seen monsters before. She'd seen what they could do to human beings, to adults, let alone children.

Itsuki leaped off his perch, snarling viciously.

Daichi's grip on his sword tightened.

"Kill... tear..." Itsuki howled, and Chihiro unintentionally took a step backward. "I'm going to rip you apart!" The words were barely out of the Zetsu's mouth before he reverted back to emitting animalistic noises. Blood still dripped from where he had smashed his face into sturdy wood, pooling at his chin.

"DODGE!" shrieked Chihiro, and Daichi rolled out of the way, spinning his kunai so that it nicked the monster during the motion.

Daichi was panting heavily. Not from exhaustion, but from sheer terror. Chihiro was barely cohrent herself, the world buzzing like a white sea of noise around her, its constancy a spike of fear in her heart.

Itsuki leaped for Daichi again, jaws salivating, and the boy barely skirted aside, his lips pressed in a thin line and his face pallid. Then Chihiro moved, the twin kunai in her hand slashing in a dance of blades. An x-shaped wound was inscribed on Itsuki's face, and the beast howled terribly, shaking his head and sending droplets of blood flying everywhere.

"NOW!" Chihiro shouted pleadingly.

"RARRRGGGHHH!" Charging, Daichi screamed in terror and fury, swinging his kunai.

Itsuki shrieked when it cut through his arm, the limb promptly falling into the grass with a wet, sickening plop.

The kunai dropped to the ground.

"Daichi?!" Chihiro frantically cried.

"Oh god." Daichi, hands covered with blood from where it had sprayed, heaved, throwing up chunks of last night's dinner. "I can't do this, I can't. I CAN'T KILL ANOTHER HUMAN!" Just like that, his resolve was broken, the wetness on his palms an awakening of reality's true horrors.

Suddenly, a scream arose. Hikari.

"He's not human," Chihiro croaked. Numbly, she stepped forward. "Not anymore." Her arm shaking, she readied her kunai at the writhing form of Itsuki. The boy-turned-monster was slowly regaining his bearings, weakened from Daichi's attack. "I'm sorry." She sniffled. "I'm so sorry..." Before tears could completely blur her vision, she threw her kunai, knowing that her aim was true.

She closed her eyes, only hearing wet thuds. When she opened them again, a kunair was embedded through one of his eyes, the other his shoulder. The monster slumped. Chihiro turned to Daichi, who was on all fours on the grass, his hair falling over his face. "Daichi. Daichi, you can get up now. He's... gone."

A sob wracked his shoulders, and Chihiro tensed. He was just a kid, even younger than her. He tried to act brave, but in the end, there was nothing he could do to disguise his fear.

"Useless," he whispered to himself. "I'm so... useless. I couldn't save my father, I couldn't even save my sister—that was you."

Hauling him up, Chihiro made for the river which they had passed earlier when Masami led them away. They broke through the foliage, discovering the rest of their expedition group (minus Itsuki) huddling by the bank, Deidara and Rin standing over them. Rin was holding her daughter tightly as Masami recounted what had happened with chattering teeth.

"We have to find Daichi!" Hikari was sobbing. "I turned around and he wasn't there—aniki!"

"Oh, Daichi!" Rin scooped him up into a hug as well, tears trailing down her cheeks. "You're okay. Gods, you're both okay." Her tears tasted salty on Daichi's tongue, but he didn't complain, merely clutching his mother's torso as he shared the warm space in her arms with his little sister. It was like he had reverted back to newborn again, desperate for the touch of his mother; not caring if he made bloody hand-prints all over her front. "I'm so sorry for leaving you."

Chihiro, on the other hand, had no such comforts. She awkwardly stood to the side, staring at the grass as she willed her racing heart to slow itself.

The commotion attracted another person, Asagi, Shogo's mother.

"What happened?" Asagi gasped, horrified at the sight of her traumatized son.

"Shogo! Shogo, come here, I'm here for you..." Her son jumped into her arms, sniffling and rubbing snot on her collar. "My son..."

Deidara turned to Chihiro. "Was it you, hm?"

Something in her tone told the orphan girl that she wished that it had been her who killed Itsuki. She did not fault her for it—she, too, did not wish for Daichi to have blood on his hands.

"Was it you who stabbed him in the heart?" Deidara repeated her question, stepping forward. She wasn't angry, but she continued to press as Rin put down her children. Daichi was clutching a bloody kunai. He must have picked it up from the grass when Chihiro hadn't been looking. "Chihiro?"

Wait, the heart?

"No," Chihiro's eyes widened, "neither of us did—"

Itsuki tore through the foliage, leaves slick with black blood thrown into the air as he howled with rage and hunger. With terrifying strength, he bowled into Chihiro, who barreled straight into Deidara, knocking the wind out of both of them as they slammed into a tree. His skin began to fleck away, and it almost seemed like his blackened eyes were melting from their sockets as he rushed at the shell-shocked Uchiha family with deadly speed.

There was wet sound of metal piercing flesh and a black shroud in the wind.

Deidara's eyes widened as that black shroud obscured her view. "... Rin?" Pushing Chihiro off, she scrambled to her feet, almost tripping over herself when she abruptly halted, staring down at the gruesome sight before her. Somehow, it didn't really faze her. When had she stopped caring? Well—it didn't matter now, not when—

Hikari slumped in her mother's arm, eyes rolling back as she lost consciousness. Her face was paper white, and the dark stain on her pants indicated that her bladder had loosened.

Tears welling up in her eyes, Rin clutched her daughter, her free hand covering her mouth as she struggled not to vomit at the sight of Itsuki's severed head on the grass. Itsuki's heart, already run through and bleeding sin like a punctured water balloon, remained in the other section of the corpse.

Daichi simply looked up at Sasuke blankly, looked up at the man who dared do what he wouldn't.

Sasuke's katana was blackened and slick with blood, and only a dancing shadow in his eyes gave away any the presence of humanity left in the Uchiha. Other than that, he remained hard and stoic. His hand was trembling slightly, but no one could tell if it was from adrenaline or remorse.

Deidara found herself breathing a sigh of relief, callously stepping over the boy's body to reach the Uchiha huddle. Without hesitating, she wrapped her arms around the remaining members of Obito's family, biting the insides of her cheeks until they stung.

Sasuke had dipped his katana in the river, black blood washing off the sword and down the mountain. He sheathed it just before multiple approaching footsteps sounded, and a group of people appeared from the foliage separating the river from the camp, led by a fretting Mikoko.

"There they are!" Mikoko splashed into the river as she waded across, not even giving the stepping stones a glance. She clumsily maneuvered herself across the water body, and her garment and person was sopping wet as she took her first step onto the grass on the other side.

The others, Deidara noticed, were Sasori and Chiyo. Itachi left with Kakashi earlier to scout the area. It was something that had to be done before sending their own in; Deidara was to be part of the collecting explosives squad. Neji's being guarded by Kisame and Anko; one levelheaded enough to balance the other's hotheadedness.

"What happened?" Chiyo demanded as she and her grandson caught up. She glanced at Deidara, then to Mikoko, who had gone stock still at the sight of Itsuki's bisected body.

"It was horrible," Asagi said hoarsely. Perhaps she did not register the tears on her face, for she made no attempt to brush them away from her cheeks, ruddy from the mountain chill. Shogo had his head buried into her bosom and was shuddering relentlessly—as soon as Itsuki had exploded from the bush, Asagi had formed a protective ball around her son.

Deidara glanced at Itsuki's sprawled lower half, then at his head, the barest feeling of pity welling in her heart. "See for yourself, hm." She turned away at that, bile rising in her throat at the sight, which had burned itself into her brain. He'd only been a boy.

"ITSUKI!" Mikoko screamed.

Reality's finally caught up to her, Deidara noted. It left a bitter taste in her mouth.

The woman fell to her knees, her hair untwisting itself from the bun she kept it in. Her mouth trembled, but no words came out as she reached out for Itsuki's head before faltering.

Mikoko did not receive her son's death with the sort of agonizing silence most women did. No, the first thing she did—the first thing she would do—

She twisted around to glare at all of them, a sort of crazed fury burning in her eyes. Her husband had been lost in Akatsuki, and her mother-in-law before that. Her son had been the only thing that she'd had left, a physical proof of the cushy life she had once lived in what she had once believed to be a safe haven.

"WHO KILLED HIM?! WHO KILLED MY SON?!"

—was to find someone to blame.

"It was you, wasn't it?!" Mikoko pointed at Chihiro, who had been watching everything unfold with a horrified quiet. "You're a monster! You've practically been raised by one; it was you, wasn't it?!"

"Mikoko," Chiyo began sharply, but the woman was mad with grief.

"I'VE LOST EVERYTHING!" Mikoko screamed, pointing an accusing finger at her before her gave shifted to Sasuke. Somehow, right away, she knew that he'd been the one to murder her child. "MY HUSBAND! MY MONEY! MY LIFE! And now... now I've lost my son!" Tears streamed down her face as her windblown hair lashed about wildly, and she lunged at Sasuke with wild abandon, only to change course and go for Rin and her children instead. In her mind, she rationalized her actions; it was only right that she hurt the man who had killed her son—but if she could not harm him, she would have to strike his family instead.

Deidara saw it coming before anyone else did.

Sasori, having been silent throughout the whole exchange, suddenly appeared in front of Mikoko. A vine twisted from his Zetsu arm and whipped through the air like lightning, slicing through flesh and bone, sharp as any of Shisui's tantos. He was fast and efficient, as if he'd been killing his whole life. Then he landed softly on the grass, staring at his new arm pensively, as if he hadn't just decapitated a civilian woman.

Mikoko's grief had been forever silenced, her head rolling to a stop next to her son's. Tears continued to trickle from the corners of her lifeless eyes, dribbling down her nose and into her mouth, still contorted in a silent scream.

"We..." Deidara had to swipe her tongue around the insides of her mouth to get rid of the dryness. "We should throw them in the river, hm." Burying them would be too much time wasted, and too much energy expended when had more pressing matters to attend to.

"The blood might attract monsters," Rin added quietly, not looking up. Her clothes almost slipped off her shoulder from the way her children were clutching the fabric.

Chiyo gave a bitter smirk. "Like we need any more."

Asagi and Rin returned to camp with the children, Deidara and Chiyo accompanying them.

Sasuke and Sasori exchanged a glance.

"No use standing around," Sasori said dryly. "Come on, brat, we'll throw the heads in first, then cut up the body."

Surprisingly, Sasuke did not complain, and they set to work, disposing of the corpses in quiet tandem. Deidara cast them one last look from across the river before disappearing behind the trees.


What was that? Deidara leaned against the tree trunk, the sun climbing to its peak behind the clouds above her. Her stomach growled, but she could not afford to consume any more of their rations. They were running dangerously low, and everything had to be conserved. I've seen him kill before, so why am I surprised? She breathed out slowly, her eyebrows creasing in a frown. No, that's not right... She sat up. The only things I've ever seen him kill before are monsters. In spite of everything, Mikoko was still a human.

It bothered her, this new side of him she had seen, especially after she'd told him that she was certain about his goodness. Of course, everything had a light and a dark side, of that, Deidara was sure, but seeing the light waver was almost... frightening.

I'm not scared of him. It was true, she assured herself. After witnessing that, she would still be willing to spend nights under the stars with him, as they had last night, in that intimate silence which she craved. No, I'm not scared. I'm... curious. What kind of skeletons was Sasori hiding in his closet to make him speak so bitterly of himself—art aside—to drive him to attempting suicide; to allow him to murder someone without even batting an eyelash? The latter could, of course, be attributed to circumstances, but the rest had her pensive.

The sun was momentarily blocked out by a murder of crows cawing and flapping overhead. It prompted her to think of Itachi and Kakashi, both of whom had yet to return from their scouting mission.

"Deidara?" Izumi came up to her. "Mind if I sit?"

The blonde shrugged. "It's not my tree, hm."

So Izumi sat, letting out a sigh. "Okay, I'm about to tell you something, and I don't want you to be mad." Her tone was sobering, and Deidara immediately paid close attention. Izumi folded her hands in her lap, trying to decide how she would go about revealing whatever information she had to Deidara. In the end, she decided for blunt and straight to the point. "I'm joining you on the expedition to the TNT base."

"What?!" Deidara lurched away from Izumi as if she'd been burned. "Tell me you're joking, hm!" Why? What about Izuna? Why the hell is Itachi letting you? How could he? A million questions raced through her mind, but she spoke none of them. Instead, she waited for Izumi to explain.

"We're short on people who could actually pull this off," Izumi said, smiling hollowly at the distance. "It can't just be you, Itachi, and Kakashi."

"And why not?" Deidara said sharply. "We're masters. We can do this, yeah."

"So am I. I haven't trained for a long while, but I, too, am a martial artist. And to be honest..." Izumi closed her eyes regretfully. "There are stronger people who could take my place, but this camp needs to be defended, too. But me? I'd pull my own weight better out on the field, where I at least have some control of what's happening. And... I can't let my husband go out on the battlefield again without knowing what's happening to him. I handled myself last time—this time will be no different."

Deidara stared at her. "You're an idiot."

"Deidara—"

"No!" she snapped, standing up. "You're only going because of Itachi! I understand that he's your husband, but haven't you ever considered that he might prefer you staying behind?! And what about Izuna? You don't have to try and prove yourself to anyone, hm!" Her raised voice turned some heads, and Izumi balked at her tone.

Then she stood up to, a fire burning in her eyes. "No, you don't understand! You never will, Deidara. I love Itachi too much to let him go to war one more time. You don't understand, because you've never seen the world in my eyes. I think..." She laughed harshly, burying her face in her palms. "I would rather die than let him go."

"Then Izuna—"

"Might not have either of his parents?" Izumi finished, staring blankly at her. Her eye twitched, as if she knew that she wouldn't be able to keep it in any longer. "Would it kill me, would it send me to hell if I told you that I don't care? I wish I could, I've been trying so hard!" She exhaled sharply, grabbing Deidara by the shoulders and trying to keep a straight face as her broken mind fell from her eyes. "I've fed him, kissed him, held him, but it still feels foreign. Like he isn't my child. One time—one time, I even thought about leaving him behind in our previous camp." She sobbed, her fingers curling into the fabric of Deidara's green shirt, still unchanged from the day she left Akatsuki. "I'm terrible. I can't even feed him properly anymore because I haven't been sleeping or eating and it's like I don't even care because I think I might not. I love him, I tell him I love him, but do I really? Did I really give birth to him? Do you know where he is now? With Sakura, because she loves and cares for him more than I ever—"

"What..." Deidara was tense as Izumi cried out her sorrows. What's wrong? What went wrong? Why? "Izumi, focus. Izumi! I'm here, shh, I'm here, yeah..." She was faintly aware of another being approaching her, and out of her periphery, she could see Shizune coming.

"Izumi, breathe," Shizune coached, her voice steady. "Everything's okay. You're not the first woman to feel this way. You're not alone." Eventually, her sobs stifled, and Izumi backed away from Deidara and let Shizune lead her away.

"I've seen this before," a voice commented to her left, and she almost jumped when she saw Chiyo. How had she not sensed her? The old woman ambled toward her, and Deidara subconsciously backed into her tree, pressing her back against the bark. Chiyo stopped beside her, glancing once to where Shizune was bringing Izumi to Rin and Asagi. "Women who've recently given birth becoming shells of their former selves. Difficulties eating, sleeping, bonding with their newborn..." Chiyo frowned. "It is a terrible thing. I knew someone like that, once."

Idly, Deidara asked, "Who?"

"She was beautiful woman, caring and kind. She eventually recovered from her darkness. Her name was Arisa. Sand. I think you would have liked her."

"... If you think so, hm..." She had really nothing else to say. She had other thoughts in her mind. Izumi is broken. I've just been too busy with my own damn feelings to notice. How could I do this to her? She's so stubborn, she'll never listen to what I have to say about this mission. She'll go anyway. Whatever gods were watching over them, she prayed that they would keep Izumi safe.

"Now's not the time to fall into your own darkness," Chiyo warned, voice grave. The foliage cracked for a moment, and Sasuke and Sasori entered the camp. "Remember that, and hopefully you won't live only to take your own life." And like a breeze in the air, she drifted away, leaving Deidara by her lonesome.

But her thoughts were muddled, and she could not use her solitude to think properly. Frustration nipped at her skin in the form of biting winds, and she stood straighter, crossing the clearing to meet with Sasori.

He gave her a questioning look.

"We should talk," Deidara said, strained.

Sasuke left them alone, thankfully, going off to who-knew-where. Sasori hesitated for a split second before nodding, expression grim. "Is it about the Mikoko woman?" There was scorn in his voice, and Deidara twitched slightly.

"Don't talk about her like that," she said, surprised at how calm her voice sounded. They went to a more secluded area, where the backdrop noise was reduced to a faint buzz. Not that the people among them talked very loudly anyway. "Earlier this morning, when you killed her, yeah... It was like seeing another side of you."

His expression grew harshly frustrated. "I already warned you—"

"I know that!" She didn't mean to snap, but this morning and Izumi's depression had her temper flaring. "And I still stand by what I said, hm. But, Danna, I want to know—"

"A killer."

"What?"

"That's who I was, and who I still am," Sasori explained, his face completely straight. His voice, however he tried to control it, betrayed more than he would have liked. "A hired killer. I've killed more people than you could possibly imagine, and I did it all with the same likeness as I did with Mikoko-san today."

He's not kidding. He's not kidding. But that was okay, wasn't it? She'd seen it herself, the side that people seemed to either completely ignore or take for granted. Each person has a light and a dark side, and I just happened to glimpse the latter todayIt's nothing. It means nothing. "Do you regret it?" She just had to know this, to solidify what she thought she'd already known.

Sasori shifted his arms slightly, and Deidara cursed herself for instinctively tensing when she saw his Zetsu arm in full view. Sasori noticed, but forced himself to keep his pokerface. Such longing and optimism in her voice, he thought bitterly. She's only setting herself up for disappointment. The only person who I thought had faith in me is beginning to doubt. How... fitting. So what if I regret anything at all? How would she react?

"I—" He halted. "Most of it. I regret most of it. There are some that I don't regret."

"That's..."

"Relieving to hear?" he cut across her, his tone chilly, defensive. "Would you still see me the same way if I had said no?" He took a step forward, and it was a small relief to see that she didn't not recoil from him. "Tell me," a leaf fell between them, momentarily obscuring his view of her delicately emaciated face, "would you?"

There was a beat.

Did you really think, a small, barely audible voice in his head told him, that she would tell you that everything was okay? That she would still accept you? That's what you want, isn't it—to be reintegrated into humanity? To shed the skin of a killer? Her silence speaks volumes—

"I told you that I don't care." If he had just a little less self control, he would have sucked in a breath at the feeling of her hand grabbing his wide, disproportionate Zetsu one. "We all have our faults, yeah, that's what you said."

"You..." Sasori glared at her, yanking his hand away. "You're insane, brat. How can you care so little about the blood on my hands—the lives which I've taken? If you really didn't care, then why are we even having this conversation? Hm?" he added mockingly, the implication loud and clear. He truly thought that she was afraid of him, somehow. Disgusted by him.

"I didn't come here to talk with you because I feared you, hm!" she said fiercely, glaring back at him; she stepped even closer so that they were almost nose-to-nose.

"Then what did you fear, Deidara?"

"I—"

A voice cut through the air, a loud protrusion through the gentle buzz. "Itachi's back! And Kakashi, too!"

More voices became raised. "Thank the gods they're still alive!"

Sasori brushed past her. "We should go." When she didn't immediately follow, he still kept going, uncertain of what kind of expression he would see on her face if he turned back.

"What did I fear?" Deidara repeated the question to him before forcing herself to move to where the flurry was. "I thought that I was going to lose you." At least now... I know that I was worrying about the wrong thing.

He stopped then, but didn't turn, waiting for her to catch up. "Why? Why don't you care about what really matters?"

She contemplated the question. Why did she? The words were on the tip of her tongue, but she had never known such a simplistic answer, especially when everything else seemed to have such a winding and convoluted solution. But like the wind calling to the bird, a natural instinct permeated her being, and she said, "Because you're not supposed to care about someone's past like that when you love them." Deidara didn't stumble on her words, didn't immediately try to retract them or amend them. Instead, she simply let it hang between them, knowing that whatever happened next was out of her hands. She didn't like it, of course—there was a part of her that was disquieted by the lack of control she had over the situation—but she had forced her own hand. "I..." She cleared her throat, heat creeping up the back of her neck and rising to her cheeks. "I underestimated you, hm. The degree of self-loathing you feel... But it's not something you have to face alone, yeah. What you were doesnt matter to me—what matters is who you choose to be now."

Sasori took in her solemn gaze, the sincerity pervading her words. He could almost envision her reaching her hand out to him as he crouched in a shroud of darkness, shadows and ghosts sliding up and over her arm as she willingly tainted herself for his sake. His breath almost caught in his throat, and his gut wrenched in mourning of her losses as he chose to take the hand which offered so much at her own expense. He knew then that he would only ever tell the truth to her if lies were avoidable. "I wish I deserved you." Then, taking her by surprise, he drew her in, the thinness of her frame painfully obvious. Brushing her hair away, his lips ghosted her forehead, and a shiver ran down her spine, her heart twisting for the lie he believed. "We should go," he repeated, not letting her protest his belief. "They're waiting for us."

Whatever feelings they had, it would have to be pushed aside for now. Especially when both of them knew there was the very high possibility that one or both of them wouldn't live to see the next dawn.


Tenten had to actively try to keep her heart beating at a steady, acceptable pace. Upon Itachi and Kakashi's return, everyone gathered around them, waiting to know what kind of fate awaited them.

"First off," Kakashi said. "If anyone has any grievances or concerns, we should address them right here. We don't need any unnecessary drama."

There was a bout of silence at first, then someone piped up, "Why is the Hyuuga still here?" It was Hitoshi, but he was sounding more uncomfortable than aggressive. "I'm talking about the long-haired boy," he added, in case someone was stupid enough to mistake his referral to the eldest Hyuuga. He had no problem with Hanabi or Hinata, after all. "How is his being here going to help us? And does anyone know where Yukari's gone?"

Tenten was curious about that, too, and she shot Sakura, who was next to her, a questioning glance. But the pink-haired medic shook her head, unsure of the other girl's whereabouts. She could have sworn her heart started racing again when she spotted Chihiro in the crowd, nearby Neji. She'd comforted the girl after the mess that had been early this morning, but she'd slipped away from her during the confusion that had arisen when Itachi and Kakashi reappeared.

"Hyuuga Neji is an ally and an asset," Itachi answered Hitoshi's concerns, in a tone that suggested no argument. "I know many of you feel nothing but hostility toward him, but I ask you—no, I implore all of you to put aside your personal feelings. He's someone we have to put our trust in, or else we might all die."

It was true. Neji had knowledge of how Zetsu camps were run, even if it was only a little. After all, he had regained his humanity before assimilating himself fully into monsterhood, and thus had never entered the monsters' largest headquarters, where Zetsu himself was rumored to be found in. And not long ago, in the absence of the children, he'd demonstrated his ability to willingly shift into a monster without the bloodthirsty disposition and mindlessness.

"Fine, but where's Yukari?" When nobody answered, he swore in frustration. "Fuck, I don't have time for this. She's ill. Physically and mentally."

"They don't know!" Hanabi didn't meant to lose her patience, but the heavy atmosphere was wearing her thin. She whirled to meet Hitoshi's gaze, adding regretfully, "None of us do."

Hitoshi didn't respond. He simply stood there, face hard. Then he lowered his chin, no more difficult questions shooting from his mouth.

Tenten stared up at Itachi's tired, lined face. He was still handsome, despite everything, and she had to admit that Izumi was a very lucky woman. Still, he seemed so far away from them—so isolated. She pitied him, much like the way she pitied almost all of them, but he incited an even stronger pity from her. She hoped to never see him cry, or scream, or break, because she wasn't sure if their perpetually low morale could survive such a devastating thing.

Under everyone's watchful gaze, Itachi couldn't help but have his feathers ruffled by a mild wind of anxiety. They depended on him. He couldn't let them down. He wasn't one for public speeches or dramatic goodbyes, but today, Itachi did a very un-Itachi-like thing. "Everyone." Just by uttering one word, their fixation on him had seemingly tripled. He was not a god, nor did he wish to be, but some would always look for someone to listen to, to bring them purpose and meaning. He took in each and every one of their dirty, tired faces, cheeks ruddy from the cold. This included Kakashi, whom Itachi observed from his peripheral. The silver-haired man's countenance was calm, but this was only because he had the very special gift of pausing his grieving process until an appropriate time. "We've made it this far. Konoha is just a few days travel away, and only one thing stands between us and salvation." He did his utmost to keep his face safe as he stated, "Not all of us will live." And perhaps Itachi was feeling more un-Itachi-like than they had first suspected, because he went on, "But to hell with it if we aren't going to try. You might not have faith in yourselves." His eyes gleamed, and suddenly, the Sharingan was spinning, a symbol of the decaying power he carried. "But have faith in me, in the people around you."

There was no applause, no cheers. It was so far away from the time that he had inspired a fighting spirit in all of them at Akatsuki Square, and Tenten's heart clenched, a dull ache making itself known in her chest. There was no sun visible—it was hidden behind the clouds—and they had seen enough death to last for a lifetime. It felt like they were in a constant downward spiral, unable to break from the centripetal force, doomed to keep accelerating toward the bottomless centre.

For a moment, Tenten thought no one would say. Maybe they would walk away with their heads hung low, preparing themselves for the inevitable.

But then—

"I'm with you." Tenten turned to see Kisame holding his head up high. He chuckled grimly. "Words I'd never thought I'd be saying, especially considering our first meeting."

Itachi nodded, and the lines on his face softened, the only indication that he was grateful for Kisame's support. And in a way, Tenten realised with a jolt, Kisame had been a stable source of comfort for all of them. He was strong, solid, and supported them without much complaint, even when they would whisper about blue monsters and tiptoe around him. Chihiro trusted him, as well as Anko, and Sakura, Itachi, Kakashi, and Sasori all held respect for him, respect that was solidified on the night of the hospital expedition.

"I'm with you, too." The next words were spoken by a voice so dark and gravelly and full of hate that Tenten nearly drew out the blade hidden in her sleeve. She had heard that voice before—only it had been light and lilting.

She pinpointed the speaker soon enough, as did everyone else, and the people standing around Kagami gave the Uchiha a wide berth. Then, slowly, Kagami lifted a hand to their face, clutching the purple mask and unhooking it.

Sasuke drew in a sharp breath.

It seemed like an eternity and a half, but then the mask was off Kagami's face and tucked into the Uchiha's palm.

"It is because of them that Shisui is dead," Kagami said, their—no, her—voice no longer muffled and mechanical, instead raw with grief. Tears were gathered in the corners of her Mangekyo eyes, and threatened to fall, but she held them back bravely. She pulled her hood down, revealing long black hair that disappeared into the rest of her garment and a clear view of her slim, delicate face. She said no more, letting the few words she had spoken shake them to the core. She had stared at Sasuke the most while saying it, as if willing him to share her vengeance.

"It doesn't matter if we die." This came from Naruto, not Sasuke. "I'm sick of running away like some coward! If it means I can be useful, then I'll do whatever you want me to, Itachi!" He looked around, as if daring anyone to oppose him.

"Kid's got spunk," Hitoshi commented, nodding in acknowledgment. "I'm in, too, I guess." He was more reluctant, but that didn't matter.

"Aw, what the heck." Anko lifted a clenched fist. "Let's make those bastards pay!" she bellowed, and several people echoed the sentiment, including Deidara and Tenten, the latter absolutely swept away by how fast everything was happening.

Awed, Itachi could only blink as, one by one, they offered their support, offered to stand alongside him in this battle. It did not come as a roaring tidal wave, but rather a subtle, yet forceful, shove of wind. He turned to Kakashi, unsure of his reaction.

"Don't look at me," Kakashi said mildly. "This is your doing, not mine. These people will die for you, not me."

"No, " Itachi amended, suddenly feeling more certain of himself. "They would die for you, too, and each other."

Kakashi gave him a surprised, but nevertheless grateful glance.

"Well, then," Deidara spoke over the dying down noise, exhilarated. "Mind telling us what the hell all of us are going to have to do?"


The plan was simple. Or as simple as it could possibly be, considering all the risk factors and variables involved. But risks, of course, had to be taken, and two of the group's most notorious members had it the worst.

"What?" Hanabi glanced up at her sister in a mixture of pity and sadness as Hinata uttered the words, outraged. She had all but lost her stutter; the constant presence of Hanabi and the blond boy, Naruto, had seen to it. There were still traces, of course, but the elder Hyuuga sister wouldn't let it ail her at this moment. "You... You want to send Neji-nii-san and Sasori-san into the camp?!"

"That's basically a death sentence!" Tenten exclaimed. She was not fond of the Hyuuga boy, but Sasori's actions in Akatsuki had earned him her loyalty. Even so, Tenten could see merit in the plan, and so could everyone else.

"The explosives have to be planted somehow," Kakashi said. "With their abilities, Neji and Sasori have the best chances of infiltrating the camp, and they won't be alone." Itachi had told them how all of them who were able would be participating in this next battle. Well, he hadn't ordered it, but he hadn't needed to. For all their fear and all their cowering, these people were tired, and a fire was burning in their bellies. They hungered for safety and survival, and they knew that if they didn't give their all into it, their chances would be greatly reduced.

In order for Neji and Sasori to plant all the bombs in the ravine, a distraction would have to be made, and Itachi would be leading the squad who would provide that. It composed of the majority of them. Their numbers had been cut down greatly since the beginning of the journey—those with martial arts training, no matter how minuscule, now outnumbered those without.

Those who could not fight—children, the sick, the elderly—would be observing the battle from the shelter in the trees, not far from the battleground. They could afford to leave them here, at such a distance away from the future war grounds.

"It's okay, Hinata-sama," Neji told her. His eyes became hooded with gratitude and regret. "I owe you a great debt, but the case goes for everyone else. This is the least I can do. Don't worry—I'll be safe."

Hinata looked pained. "Neji-nii..."

"It's okay, Hinata," Naruto comforted her. "We'll just have to raise hell as best as we can so Neji will be safe!"

"Y-Yes!" Hinata's eyes steeled from the support she was receiving from Naruto. "You can count on me!" She said this not only to Naruto and Neji, but to everyone else as well. Hanabi smiled at her, pleased.

Before that could happen, however, the TNT had to be retrieved first, and a special team of strong warriors were going to do that. The cell composed of Itachi, Deidara, and Kakashi, but from the way Izumi was staring up at her husband, her arms still absent of their child, it would probably change soon.

After more discussion, they dispersed, and Izumi and Itachi found each other, taking their conversation under a shady tree.

"I've heard," Itachi began softly.

"From who?" Izumi forced her voice to remain steady, but the underlying anger could still be heard. "Deidara?"

"No, Chiyo."

What? Then...

"I can't allow you to go."

"Anata—"

"Don't go, Izumi." His eyes were pleading with her. "Izuna needs you."

"No. No he doesn't. He needs you, not me. He doesn't need me, Itachi." Izumi stepped right up to him, kissing him chastely on the lips once before drawing back. "Don't ask me why I feel this way because I don't know. I'll only tell you that this feeling hasn't once left me ever since his birth. Why do you think I gave Asagi the honor of being his godmother? A woman I hardly know. It was a spur of the moment decision, but I trust her." She narrowed her eyes at him. "I will go. I'll bring more to the table than I will staying behind. You didn't see how many of those things I killed back in the cave, Itachi. I can do this. My body won't betray me. You won't be able to stop me, short of knocking me out. Can you do that, Itachi? Even if you can, I won't let you." Her voice wavered slightly, but she kept a brave face.

I know I can't. How weak, he chastened himself, how pathetic that you cannot stop her from doing this. He knew—he knew—that she was emotionally manipulating him to get her way. She had done so before, but never this boldly. She was getting desperate to stay by his side, to protect him from the open arms of death. She loved him more than their child, and he could never harm her, even if it was for her own good. Itachi cursed his weakness. His love for Izumi—something that kept him strong—was becoming his downfall.

"Selfish," he uttered.

"I know. I know I am." She lifted a hand to his face solemnly. "But if I lose you without even having the chance to stop it from happening, it will destroy me. I'm sorry, Itachi, I really am. I've been told that I am a good wife, but I'm afraid I cannot be the mother Izuna deserves."

"You don't have to be. But do not stop me from being a father to Izuna," Itachi said sharply, the words sticking to his throat like flies to honey. "What kind of father would I be, if I knowingly took his mother away?"

"I'm not going anywhere," she promised, the conviction in her voice powerful, persuasive. "I'm going, Itachi. And we'll go to Konoha together, with Izuna. I... Shizune explained to me what this was, and she told me that I wouldn't be alone in the recovery process. When we get there, I'll get better. We both will."

Had his self-control been any weaker, he would have undoubtedly flinched at the implication.

"You are not well, Itachi, and I'm not talking about your cough," Izumi stated, eyes growing mournful. "We're damaged. We both are, and everyone else around us, too. Three is not enough to take on multiple Zetsu, and there is no one else more suited to infiltration than I am amongst our group. Perhaps Sasori could, but we can't risk him."

Itachi merely stared blankly at her. Then he embraced her. "Stay."

"I won't. I think I'll go mad if I do," she whispered.

"Don't be foolish. Better mad than dead."

"... I'm going. And you cannot stop me."

It was then Itachi saw her in a new light. Desperate. Unhinged, almost. A liability. A liability that needed to be controlled, and he did not trust anyone with her assured safety. She needed him, and...

Perhaps he needed her, too.

"Stay by me at all times. Do not engage without permission." His tone became almost soldier-like and she shivered. She was now his weapon, one that he would wield to utmost efficiency. He was like that, sometimes, disassociating with his normal,

pacifist persona.

"I guess that's all I can ask for."


"TNT can't be carried in a storage scroll, hm," Deidara told Itachi bluntly. "Storage scrolls require chakra to be channelled through a seal to activate, and we all know what that could end up doing."

"Chakra is quite the volatile thing, isn't it?" Kakashi hummed thoughtfully. "Any ideas, Itachi? Izumi?"

They were setting out to leave soon, and the rest they left behind would just have to sit tight and wait.

Itachi answered, "There is one..."

He told them his idea, and they all turned to the many eyes on them at once, as if they were one entity.

It looked like they wouldn't be sitting tight after all.


The trees were a blur of greens and some yellows as Deidara whisked through the treetops, Itachi, Izumi, and Kakashi alongside her. They had become three of her most trusted people, and she felt as at ease as she could possibly be. Her blood still thrummed with anticipation, and she was not ashamed that she fantasized about leaving explosives to detonate the surrounding area around the base after they left. It would be glorious, turning everything into ashes, including those dark, immoral beings.

The wind hurt her face, but she had learned to accept physical pain, and tune it out until it became nothing but a barely noticeable bite on her flushed cheeks.

Itachi landed lightly on a branch, Izumi landing beside him. Deidara found her place in an opposite tree branch with Kakashi nearby.

"Coast is most definitely not clear," Kakashi muttered, eyeing the lumbering Zetsu around the outpost with distaste. "We'll have to kill. Make it quick and efficient as possible. No drawing it out—just a good stab in the heart."

"Roger that," Deidara said wryly. She caught Izumi's gaze then, saw the seriousness in her eyes. The Uchiha woman gave her a nod, and Deidara lowered her chin slightly in return. Then the four were ghosts in the wind, merely apparitions to any watching eyes.

The monsters were large. Almost twice as tall as Kakashi, the tallest among them, but for supposedly apex predators, their large bulk made it so that they had extremely poor peripheral vision. They made up for it with their powerful sense of smell and hearing, extreme endurance, and deadliness—which was just overkill—so they had to strike as many down as possible while they still had the element of surprise.

Izumi was surprisingly good at exploiting weaknesses, Deidara found. She'd notice before, as they had sparred frequently before Izumi entered pregnancy, but only in passing, and had never really focused on that strength. Izumi's keen eye was exactly that—keen—and made up for her lack of Sharingan.

They managed to kill seven—a good number, considering everything—before they were forced to throw away their sneakiness in order to directly engage the remaining Zetsu soldiers. All of them were splattered with black, seaweed-colored blood by that time. They all carried weapons, and all of their blades were ones that used to belong to Shisui.

He'd been something to all of them. Whether it'd been a brother-in-arms and a fellow rebel, a beloved relative, or the first friend in an unfamiliar country.

The final body fell at Itachi's hand, the man's entire length of arm plunged through the black flesh of the Zetsu, its heart pierced by Shisui's tanto. He removed his limb from the monster's chest cavity with a slimy flourish, the rolled-up long sleeve of his shirt plastered to his skin with unholy fluid.

Deidara couldn't help it. She smiled, baring all of her teeth. All of this violence... she found that it didn't even phase her at this point, as if that part of her had been burned out completely, replaced with a mentality that was forged by fire. To have a hand in slaughtering the animals who had killed so many of her beloved people—it was exhilarating; it gave her the same feeling as unleashing some of her hand-crafted explosives.

The door of the seemingly small bunker was kicked down by Kakashi, and the smell of death and rot pervaded the air even more so than it already was. Behind the mask, he wrinkled his nose. It led deep underground, this one, and all of them had at least a vague idea of what lay in the darkness.

Itachi turned on his Sharingan before entering. "Kakashi, be prepared." He didn't see the affirming nod of the man behind him, but he didn't need to. The Hatake disappeared into the treetops surrounding the area. "Izumi, stand guard. Deidara, you're with me."

Itachi and Deidara left Kakashi and Izumi behind to venture further into the bunker, callously stepping over mangled, mutilated bodies. Itachi, with his Sharingan spinning, led the way, and they found the explosives after a few minutes of poking around. As expected, they were stored in crates, with black powder scattered all over the floor. They made sure to keep their chakra flowing steadily, not allowing any of it to leak from their bodies, as chakra was sometimes prone to do when one got emotional.

They could each carry four crates each before handling them started to take a toll on their muscles. Izumi's gaze followed them from her shadowed position on a nearby tree as her husband and friend exited the bunker with eight crates of TNT between them. They reached a knotted tree with yellow leaves, tapping once on the wood to summon Kakashi. He hung upside down as he collected the crates one at a time, setting them on a thick branch. Then he was a shadow, carrying two crates at a time as he flitted through the trees.

Hanabi was not surprised to see Kakashi land on her tree, which was a bit further away from the outpost. "You can carry these, right?" he inquired.

She nodded, taking the crates from Kakashi and jumping away. She gave them to Sasuke, who was partially hidden on the high branches of a mighty oak tree, who passed them to Kisame, who passed them to Anko and so on. They didn't reach Gai until the very end of the makeshift delivery line, who they were counting on to deliver the TNT steadfastly to their new storage spot—close to the Zetsu ravine, but not too close—which were the medium-high branches of a sycamore with many recesses and indents. There, Gai would be greeted by the pallid but hopeful faces of those who weren't able or strong enough to help—young children, the old, and the pregnant. Their old camp had long been abandoned, the fire put out by a grinning Konohamaru with a stream of yellow water that made Moegi roll her eyes behind her hand and Udon cough exasperatedly. Iruka had given an indignant shout, still clutching comically to the bucket of river water he had painstakingly collected for the purpose of offing the flame.

They worked in tandem, warriors and civilians alike. The middle of the chain had the weakest strength-wise, composing of Hinata, Shikamaru, Masami, and so on. Their trees were closer together, to make the process more efficient.

"Careful!" Tenten hissed when Naruto nearly dropped a crate of TNT on the ground.

"Sorry!" Naruto stage-whispered back, the apology delivered through clenched teeth.

"Troublesome," Shikamaru muttered from the tree next to Tenten's. "Pass it here already, before my arms become too tired to lift."

At the outpost, Itachi and Deidara were churning out crates and crates of TNT as fast as they could, knowing that they could not afford to dally. Izumi cupped her hands and twittered like a bird, the signal that they had decided on. They were coming. The twittering grew more hasty. Deidara gritted her teeth. They had collected a little more than half of the TNT supply, but it still wasn't enough to decimate the entire camp. They could not rely on a rockfall to destroy the beasts. They needed to be purged with fire. Otherwise everything she loved would be torn apart.

"Be safe," Sasori had said before they'd left, going separate ways.

"Worry about yourself, yeah," she had replied with a grim smile. She'd almost kissed him. But she hadn't. Had refrained from doing so. Other things had taken precedence.

"Deidara!" Itachi's voice sounded close to her ear as they ducked into the bunker. "This is the last run. We'll have to go after that. Kakashi is already evacuating the others."

She grunted in affirmation, nearly tripping over a body without a face. Her arms were burning fiercely from carrying the crates, not allowing chakra to assist her in the great heave, lest she blow them all up sky high.

She picked up one crate this time, unable and unwilling to carry more than that, while Itachi picked up two.

She could already feel the repressing chakra of the Zetsu soldiers diffusing around the surroundings, like a dark haze of fog or something else equally effusive. Faster, she coached herself, she needed to be faster.

They burst into the sunlight rapidly, leaving the darkness and death behind them. Probably for good. Unless they had a death wish, they would not be returning here soon.

Kakashi had gone and escorted the others away. She could barely feel their suppressed chakra signatures hopping further and further away until she could no longer sense them. She knew the monsters would not be able to smell them. The wind blew in only one direction due to the mountain's formations, and their group's location was decidedly downwind.

"LOOK OUT!" Izumi's warning came like a crash of thunder that was suddenly silenced, and then Deidara's box of TNT was flying out of her hands and through the air, where it made contact with Itachi's.

What?!

The boxes, upon colliding at such a high speed, shattered and splintered, and black powder rained upon them.

Vines were wrapped around her waist and neck, nearly suffocating her. Itachi was in a similar predicament, and she was unable to turn her head to see how Izumi was faring.

The monsters were still a while away, from what she could sense. So how? Where had these come from?

"Excellent. You truly are a scientific wonder, my dear. Of course, I have my previous children to thank."

And of all the—

Yukari stumbled out, missing an eye, her nose, and part of her ear. Beside her, a grey-haired man with a pale, cracked mask of a face, emerged. He wore round-rimmed glasses, and a black tongue swiped around his lips once.

More vines. Deidara was completely restrained now, as was Itachi. She still could not see Izumi, and she could not speak either. She could not scream when vine penetrated her shoulder, then her leg, purposefully missing the important arteries. Eyes shifting to the side, she saw Itachi suffering a similar fate, his eyes nearly closed shut with pain as the Sharingan flickered out.

"She came to me willingly," the grey-haired man mused, a vine stroking his chin in thought. "Sick and weak. I improved her then, in only the span of a few hours. I wonder... how could I improve you?"


Kakashi jumped from tree branch to tree branch, his heart pounding relentlessly. Finally, in what seemed to him like an eternity and a half, he burst through the foliage and landed in the most leafy tree closest to the outpost, almost overshooting and making his presence known to the monsters that had replaced their fallen comrades.

No sign of Itachi.

Or Deidara.

Or Izumi.

Only the red of human blood amongst the black of the monsters.

Kakashi's heart fell into his stomach.


I... Where... Where am I?

Deidara's eyes cracked open slowly, and her spine straightened at the dryness of the corner of her lids.

It's so dark in here, she mused deliriously. And the air was dank and vile with piss, shit, and blood. Her entire body was wracked with pain. Some stung, while others were aching and stiff. Her neck, in particular, ached fiercely no matter how she positioned her head.

She tried to lift her arm, but found that she could not. But she hardly registered it, continuing to pull at the chakra chains which bound her wrists to the damp floor of her cell. It clanked. The noise hurt her ears, sending a sharp bolt of lightning running down her brain and lingering at the back of her teeth and the base of her neck. So she ceased, her breathing growing shallower.

The last thing she saw before falling into an almost death-like sleep was the man's cracked, bespectacled face, his grin promising horrors yet to come.

Deidara smiled back, as if such a futile thing would defeat him. She smiled even as the woman in the next cell screamed and screamed, separated only from her by a few metal bars.

And then she slept.

Chapter Text

Snap!

Sasori glanced upward as Rock Lee jumped off a branch with a thick vine in one calloused hand and a kunai in the other, landing gracefully on his feet on the landing of the sycamore tree. The tree was huge, extraordinarily so, able to fit all thirty-something of them in its heart, where branches separated from the unbreakable vertical trunk, each branch boasting incredible thickness and stability. A shady, thick canopy protected them from the weather.

Lee acknowledged Sasori with a two-fingered salute. "Will this be enough to secure the crates?"

"Maybe two, three at most," the red-haired man informed him, sound faraway. The Uchiha and Deidara have yet to report. Where the hell are they? He tapped his foot impatiently, disliking their tardiness and doing his best to ignore the worm of worry wiggling its way through his heart. But the sycamore hadn't yet become completely occupied, people still streaming in from Hatake's orders. He would give them a small while longer.

Lee took Sasori's words to heart, passing the vines over to Shikamaru before scaling up the trunk and to the neighboring tree to collect more vines. The Nara passed the makeshift ropes to Gai, who stacked two crates on top of each other and bound them tightly before pushing them into a random cavity in the trunk. There were multiple crates already secured like this with rope, but they had run out of the material.

"Troubled?" Chiyo said as she appeared from god-knew-where. He hardly spared her a glance. She was not the woman that he wanted to see right now, but she was acceptable company.

"They should be back by now," Sasori stated, biting down on his teeth in the most minuscule show of frustration. In his periphery, he could see Sasuke help Hanabi get up a particularly steep side of the tree. Good thing, too, as they were so high up the ground, it would have meant certain death if she had fallen from this height. "Those two," he jerked his head toward the pair, "were stationed at the very front of the line. Why are they here, and not Deidara?"

Chiyo, noticing that he'd left out the Uchiha couple, couldn't help but smirk slightly. "I'm sure they'll show up soon, my worried grandson. Stop fretting." She patted his shoulder, but from the pinched expression on his face, he didn't seem to be any less tense. She sighed. "I'm serious, Sasori. Go make yourself useful." Then she left.

It was sound advice, Sasori had to admit, but a more petulant side of him simply wanted to keep standing around, not wanting to bow his head to his grandmother's whims. In the end, he forced himself to move, lifting his rift arm up. Vines burst forth as his white Zetsu appendage disassembled itself, wrapping around a sturdy branch near the very top of the sycamore. Ignoring any surprised gasps around him, he willed the arm to retract, pulling himself up like a bucket in a well. The new limb was surprisingly obedient, but he was sure that there were more abilities that he'd yet to witness and command. As he skipped across to the next tree with little trouble, snatching moss-covered vines, he recalled the day he had put his utmost faith into Deidara.

She'd held his life in her tongued-hands that day, and it was sheer, impossible luck that her crazy plan had worked. But before Neji had cut the bridge (he remembered, with no small amount of disdain, that it'd been the Hyuuga boy and not some random), before Sawako had been bisected...

Deidara screaming in rage and disbelief as the smoke cleared, revealing that the monster chasing them had shielded itself from the blast by summoning vines from the ground (or it could have been its body, he wasn't sure) to encircle it tightly.

"Thanks for your help!" said a sweaty Lee, interrupting Sasori's train of thought. "Really appreciate it. Our youthful effort will not go to waste!" As if to verify his proclamation, Lee karate-chopped more vines with a newfound vigor, and Sasori was not surprised to hear Gai echoing his mini-me's rallying cries from somewhere down below.

"Hmph. Don't get too ahead of yourself," Sasori advised, turning to Lee with a bland, yet ominous expression. "After all, this might all go to waste in the end."

At first, Lee seemed unsure of what to make of Sasori's cynicism. But then Sasori could practically see an epiphany strike him as his eyes sparkled unnaturally brightly. Then, cupping one hand around his mouth, he called down to his larger counterpart, "Gai-sensei, is this what you would call a hip attitude?!" Then, to Sasori's horror, the boy mimicked his words, even trying to impersonate his tone and expression.

"How modern!" Gai shouted back, sounding scandalized. "You can't let yourself lose to the wiles of nihilism, Lee!" He said something about the power of youth that Sasori didn't really care to listen to, ending with, "In many ways, he is like my eternal rival!"

Eternal rival? Who was that again? He was sure that Gai had mentioned this elusive rival once before, back in Akatsuki, but—

Sasori's eyes widened ever so slightly. "Oh, hell no," he deadpanned, incredibly unamused. It was one thing to call him out on his bleak view of the world, but to compare him to the likes of Hatake? When this was all over, he was going to strangle Gai with those obnoxious, ostentatious orange leg warmers of his.

By the time the boxes and boxes of TNT were safely secured, everyone was already back.

Well. Almost.

Sasori searched for a certain blonde head of hair in the crowd, even when he couldn't feel her chakra signature among them. He would never admit it to anyone, not even himself, but anxiety was gnawing away at his heart, and he wanted nothing more than to shake Hatake and demand the whereabouts of Deidara (and the Uchiha; they, too, were good friends of his and valuable comrades) before going off on his own to search for them.

He wasn't the only one full of questions, it seemed, as the younger Uchiha brat, Sasuke, got right up in Hatake's face and asked, "Where is my brother? And Izumi?" He left out Deidara, but her name was practically hanging in the air.

"Kakashi-kun?" Rin prompted hesitantly. "What did you find?"

So the Hatake had gone out already? And they still weren't here? Chopping vines had been a good distraction, but Sasori could no longer ignore what was directly in front of him. His gut and brain told him the same thing, that the missing were either dead or just that: missing and unable to be located.

Kakashi hesitated for a moment more before answering, "Gone." It was such a simple word, but it left Sasori raring for more answers, even as he felt the heaviness of Hatake's words.

"That is not an answer," Sasori said cuttingly, his voice a cold fire. He wasn't in the mood for Kakashi's vague bullshit, and he made it very clear. "Where is Deidara?"

Kakashi took in a deep breath. Then he told them of what he had found. Of the puddles of blood in the grass, the decimated TNT boxes and the scattered powder nearby. "I can't say for certain if they are dead or alive," he concluded. "But the lack of... severed parts and amount of blood spilled tells me that they were probably incapacitated and captured."

Well, of course. Sasori had been able to glean about as much from Kakashi's recount. But so what? They might have been alive maybe minutes ago, but they could easily be dead now.

Sasori did nothing as Sasuke grabbed Kakashi by the collar and slammed him into the tree trunk, only holding out an arm to stop some boxes from tipping out.

"You were there!" Sasuke bellowed, his Sharingan practically pulsing in his eyes in rage. "How did you not see anything?!"

"Sasuke!" Rin shouted. "That's enough! Release him at once!" Her daughter was hiding behind her leg, cowering in fear at the raised, angry voices that seemed to be echoing through the forest. Her son, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen, but Sasori did not care for his whereabouts at the moment.

"Sasuke, please!" Sakura echoed. "Just let him go and we can talk this out."

Their words fell on deaf ears. Sasuke only tightened his grip of Kakashi's collar, his knuckles pressing into the soft flesh of his throat, leaving just enough space to let him talk. "How could you fail him like that?" Sasuke's lip trembled, and for a second, Sasori thought that he was about to cry. "You were there. So why didn't you save them?"

"Your brother's... orders..." Kakashi grabbed Sasuke's hand and pushed him away. He massaged his threat. "They were closing in. My orders were to evacuate the rest of you." The words sounded pathetic, even to himself, but he did not wilt.

Sasori didn't need to see him physically bend. He knew that Hatake was breaking slowly inside, scrambling to reassemble his parts. Just days ago, he would have been happy to see Sakumo's legacy crumbling, but he remained ambivalent now. Instead of rage, he felt only... a hollow pity.

"Kakashi?" This time, it was Naruto who uttered his name, worriedly.

"I'm sorry." The Hatake's apology was delivered mechanically, but they could all hear the raw pain in his voice. So raw that some actually turned away to hide their tears. "I'm so sorry. There is nothing I hate more than abandoning my comrades."

"Then why did you do it?!" Tears were gathering at the corners of Sasuke's eyes, threatening to fall. Sakura grabbed his shoulders to prevent him from lunging at Kakashi again, her grip strong, but shaky. "This isn't the first time you've failed us!" His words were barbed, meant to hurt as much as possible.

"Oi, teme, shut up!" Naruto's own temper flared, unwilling to see Kakashi, already down, be kicked any longer. "This has nothing to do with the past!"

But everything to do with the present, Sasori thought. He did not begrudge Sasuke. In fact, he felt that their feelings on this matter were aligned. Because of Kakashi's decision, three people who he considered his closest familiars—one more so than the others—had been captured by unholy abominations of nature, and were now likely dead. Eaten alive. His fists clenched, and it took every ounce of his self-control and reasoning to not flay Hatake alive. He had, of course, protected the rest of them by making this decision. And Itachi had ordered it. Sasori could point fingers all day, but that wouldn't help matters.

There was more shouting that Sasori didn't catch. Rin got involved at one point, as did most of them. Gai, Anko, Hitoshi... Eventually, they tired themselves out. It was a little past afternoon, and because of the winter, the sun was setting prematurely. It was going to be completely dark soon.

A fire was not set. There were a million reasons why this would be a bad idea. Sasori couldn't eat or sleep as he sat far away from the others, who were downing rations, watching the stars.

From so high up, Sasori could actually see the remnants of their old camp from here. It looked trashed, as if wild animals had stomped through the area and poked through every nook and cranny. But the wind was still in their favor, and by some miracle, the Zetsu had not heard their argument; while the Zetsu army scoped the area, the group of survivors remained undiscovered. Humans weren't supposed to climb trees, after all. Not trees like this, anyway. They would never think to look up.

Feeling a little claustrophobic despite everything, Sasori hauled himself up to the canopy of the tree, sitting down on the uppermost branch to admire the stars. His entire being ached from a perceived loss, and he longed to leave them all behind to search for his missing partner.

But he couldn't. Logic and rationality dictated his actions, and he could not let such a raw emotion like love move him to act impulsively. He was a man of precision and careful thought and planning, and those qualities kept him alive after all these years. Right now, his best option was to wait for the long night to be over. They hadn't yet discussed what would happen now that key members of their group were gone. Presumed dead. He'd heard that term being tossed around by more than one. Discussion would happen tonight, Sasori presumed. It would have to. They were all living on borrowed time. Sooner or later, the Zetsu would find them and slaughter them all, so they had to act first. But right now, they were all grieving.

Most of them grieved the loss of their leader, Itachi, who had been their beacon of light during this shitstorm.

Others were less fortunate.

Rin had lost two members of the family she had married into, the family which she loved so dearly. Not only that, she had also lost a close friend in Deidara, who she had spent her days with in Akatsuki. Who she had grown to love and appreciate, and who her children had admired. The last he had seen of her, she'd been catatonic, and Hikari had cried herself to sleep in her arms. He wasn't sure how to comfort her. He'd left that up to Kakashi instead.

Deidara had been Kakashi's friend, too, he recalled. Had been. He never hated his nihilistic nature more than now. Bitterness enveloped him, and he found that he could no longer enjoy the stars on such a beautiful night, when there was absolutely nothing beautiful about his thoughts. When there was no one to enjoy it with.

He was familiar with bitterness. It usually encompassed most of his feelings, made up more than half of the brewing storm of emotion swirling in his traitorous heart.

Sasori glanced down at his hands, only to find that they were covered by leaves that did not fall in the winter. How strange, as sycamores were known to be deciduous. But he paid it no heed. If anyone were to observe him, they would be greeted with a funny sight: Sasori protruding from the treetop like a parasitic growth, only some of the upper half of his body visible to the world.

He was about to return to where everyone else was and perhaps whip out his calligraphy brush and paper of poetry (he'd come to accept it as such) when rustling caught his attention. Sasori retreated to below the canopy, brown eyes blinking as he adjusted to the darkness that came with the absence of the moon's light.

Standing on a wide branch below him were Sasuke and Daichi. From the looks of it, Sasuke had surprised Daichi with his sudden appearance. So that was where Rin's son had been hiding out all day. Sasori wouldn't have seen him, as he had ascended the great sycamore from the opposite side, and the boy only emitted a detectable chakra signature when he had his Sharingan activated.

Wearily, Daichi stepped backward before turning away, slumping against the centre tree trunk and sliding down. Sasuke watched him for a bit before he spoke.

"What do you want?" Daichi's voice was tired. Much too tired from a child his age. Then again, he'd seen things that no child should ever have to see.

Sasuke didn't immediately reply. In fact, he stayed still for so long that Sasori half-wondered if he'd fallen asleep. In actuality, he was debating on just what to start with. So he started with the most obvious one, "I'm sorry."

"For—for what?"

"A lot of things. My actions during the war, especially." Sasuke let out a frustrated huff, passing his hand through his hair. "I betrayed the Uchiha."

"Yeah. You did." There was no inflection in Daichi's voice, and he simply kept staring into the dark, at leaves he could not see.

"I killed your father."

Daichi did react more aggressively then, nearly knocking his head against the tree trunk as he turned quickly. "What do you want?!" he hissed. "What are you trying to achieve?!" He gritted his teeth. "Besides... I don't even care about that anymore."

Sasuke voiced what Sasori was thinking, "You clearly do, you brat." He stood closer to Daichi, his cloak rippling in the evening breeze. "Are you afraid, Daichi, that you're becoming like me?"

No answer.

"You're not a monster. You're just a kid," Sasuke stated bluntly.

Daichi inhaled sharply. "I cut his arm off. I could have killed him. I wish I had. I'm like you, now. A monster."

"No!" Sasuke was more forceful this time. "It means that you're human, which is a fuck-lot better than what I am." He sneered in the direction Daichi was facing. "I'm a traitor and a kinslayer. You—you are a boy."

So are you, Sasori thought, pressing his abdomen against the branch he was observing them from. They were both boys who had bloomed too early after having their lives torn apart by war and death, who had the potential to break out from their self-imposed prisons and start anew.

He wondered, suddenly, if this was what Deidara was trying to tell him. Starting fresh. Breaking away from the darkness cast by your own shadow. Reshaping your life into something more worthwhile. He'd been so convinced that he would need an eternity—one that he didn't have—to ever forgive himself. Sasori narrowed his eyes in contemplation. Maybe all he needed to do was simply try.

None of them said anything. Then Daichi shivered from the cold, and Sasuke didn't protest when the boy shuffled closer to him for warmth.

They clearly weren't going to move for a while so Sasori let them be, slinking to the other side of the tree to descend. As he disappeared into the night, Sasuke turned his head to his direction once, catching only the black hem of an Akatsuki cloak.


Tenten didn't know what she was eating. Only that it was stale, cold, slimy, and tasted like cardboard. Still, food was food, and she wasn't exactly in a position to be picky.

"Pass the salt," Shikamaru, seated next to her, said to Choji, who had ended up on the opposite side of him in their little circle.

"Oh, I don't have it," replied Choji through a mouthful of wet-cardboard-in-a-can. He thumbed to the person sitting next to him. "Neji does."

And he was probably why Tenten had kept her eyes down the whole time. It was no secret that she wasn't exactly fond of Neji, but... She also wasn't entirely sure what to make of him. Hinata seemed to trust him, and Hanabi was... coming around faster than Tenten would have thought. Both Hyuuga sisters were sleeping right now, curled up against one another against the tree trunk. They weren't the only ones fast asleep either.

"Ah," said Shikamaru. "Pass the salt, Neji." The indifference in his voice astounded Tenten, who knew for a fact that he was just as confused about Neji as she was. The bun-haired girl frown. Of course, that conversation had been a few nights ago, and his mind could have changed at any time between then and now. Shikamaru was kind of a fickle guy.

"Where's Lee?" Choji asked Tenten in an attempt to make conversation that extended beyond asking for the little plastic bag of precious salt, which Neji was handing to Shikamaru, looking for the world like a normal teenage boy.

Tenten almost groaned at that. "Don't even get me started. He's convinced that he needs to get to Gai-san's level as quickly as possible and he's," she paused, unsure of how to say the next words, "climbing up at down the tree with Gai-san using only his legs." As she spoke the very words, they could feel Lee's head bump against the main landing which almost everyone was occupying, he and Gai doing their exercises somewhere closer to the bottom of the sycamore.

Shikamaru snorted, almost choking on his food. Choji did choke, and ended up in a coughing fit that was solved when he downed some water from his canteen. Neji actually chuckled quietly in amusement, which surprised Tenten. So he was capable of feeling actual human emotions and had a sense of humor. Duly noted.

Tenten smiled weakly. She was still wary of the Hyuuga, naturally, but so far, he was surprising... docile, if not a little high-strung at times.

At that point, Choji declared that he needed to take a tinkle off the side of the tree, and Shikamaru said he was going to talk to his father. Both boys got up at the same time and split up, leaving Tenten alone with Neji.

Tenten internally cringed at the silence that stretched between them after the other boys left. Awkward. She was uncertain of what exactly to say to him, so she focused on eating instead.

At first, nothing happened, for which she was glad for. But then, the boy spoke.

"You're Tenten." A statement, not a question. She had a feeling that he normally talked without question marks. His voice had this... posh quality to it, as if he wasn't a Hyuuga-monster but a Hyuuga-royal.

"Yeah," Tenten said. "And you're Neji." Wonderful. Now could he please stop trying to force conversation? An irk mark appeared on her cheek as she scraped the inside of her tin can to collect as much wet-cardboard-mush as possible on the blunt kunai she used for eating. "Nice to meet you." Hopefully, that would be that.

"You don't like me much. It's unsurprising." Neji had already finished his salted-cardboard, so his mouth wasn't obstructed by food. He scoffed irritably, "I suppose I sealed my own fate." Half of his face became obscured by leafy shadow as he slumped forward, balancing his elbows on his knees.

"You didn't seal any fate." Tenten surprised herself by even opening her mouth. "It was just bad luck, that's all," she